Last week there was news of the 100-day countdown to the Olympics in Japan, and it’s sad visitors won’t be able to attend. Japan is one of my favorite trips ever, as I love the cultural influences that are so different from ours. Today I share a unique aspect of Japanese tradition…
Experiencing an Onsen in Japan
Visiting Japan can be a whirlwind of new experiences. From trying the best of Japanese cuisine, to visiting some of the most culturally significant shrines and temples in Japan to enjoying the sheer size and breadth of Japanese shopping districts, there is no shortage of things to do and places to see. However, for those days when you want something a little more relaxed – and very authentic – a good option is to do as the Japanese do and visit an onsen.
What is an Onsen?
An onsen is a Japanese naturally-occurring hot springs bath. Hot springs pop up in areas with volcanic activity, and as a country with a high amount of seismic and volcanic movement, Japan is full of hot springs. The onsen may be outside natural areas, or large tubs or bath pools where the hot springs are pumped in. There are onsens all throughout Japan, but there are some areas or towns that are particularly well-known for it, whether it be due to historical significance or the variety of onsens in the area.
Background & Benefits
Over time the place of onsen in Japanese culture has changed, but it has remained culturally significant throughout – from a time when it was a luxury reserved for the upper class to the modern day where they are enjoyed by all parts of Japanese society. As the waters are naturally heated, they are more likely to contain higher levels of minerals or chemical elements. The combination of minerals in the water is considered to have a number of health benefits and this is often how onsens will advertise.
This background of desirability combined with the benefits of onsen led to Japan having a strong culture of bathing. Bathing became a time for connecting with family and friends, a time of healing and a time of renewal. While it may not be thought about as directly nowadays, the culture has remained with bathing being seen as an activity rather than a mere necessity; onsens are often a meeting place for socializing.
Onsen in Today’s Culture
As mentioned, onsens are still extremely popular today. They are regularly visited by Japanese families or friends on a trip together. Many onsens have retained their traditional appearance while some have updated to resemble a more Western-style resort. When visiting an ‘onsen town’, there is likely to be a mix of the two. For an experience truer to Japanese culture, a traditional onsen is probably a better choice. Visiting an onsen is a way to really participate in Japanese culture rather than simply looking from the outside.
Some of the onsen are large outdoor areas of naturally occurring springs; others are large enclosures or tubs outside with a setting in nature. Some onsen are inside what we would think of as large hot tubs with the hot springs mineral water piped in, or in more modern looking bathing areas. Often, some type of onsen is included in ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).
There are a number of rules and guidelines that come with visiting an onsen. As something that is so steeped in Japanese culture, it is seen as important to maintain the traditions that come with it. While visiting hot springs in some countries is more similar to visiting a pool, visiting a Japanese onsen is very much a public bath.
Onsens are separated by gender and there are no swimsuits or clothes allowed in the actual bath area, with no exceptions made. Yep, you are naked – or in a super Southern drawl – nekkid!
First there is a locker and changing room to leave your belongings and undress. From here, you can enter the bathing area. The only thing you can take beyond this point is a small towel. However, before going into the bath, you must wash yourself, as the onsens are not intended for bathing in the sense of cleaning yourself. Rather it is an activity of relaxation. There are showers, usually with soap provided where you can wash, then you can enter the bath. If you have long hair, it must be tied up.
These rules are all in place to protect the purity of the water. As it is seen as a healing experience, the water is considered almost a spiritual substance that must be protected. Therefore, your hair cannot touch it, clothes cannot touch it and your body cannot touch it without being cleansed first. If you don’t leave your small towel to the side , it can’t go into the water so you fold it and set it on your head.
While both the strictness of rules and the necessary nakedness among strangers can seem quite intimidating, once you enter the actual onsen bath, it all becomes worth it. It is surprising how quickly you can overcome the awkwardness you may feel and just relax into the experience. Visiting and enjoying an onsen can be one of the most rewarding experiences Japan has to offer.
When I visited Japan, I had the opportunity to visit two onsen. The first was at our hotel, Hoshinoya Tokyo, a new 17-story 5-star hotel built with the interior of a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. On the top floor is the onsen, an indoor hot spring bath fed from about a mile below Tokyo. This onsen had a modern feel, with a stone tile bottom below the water and wooden walls, with natural materials all evoking a feeling of relaxation in nature, with an open roof above the water (see picture above).
While it was an extremely strange and awkward feeling to be in the locker area and bath space completely naked, the fact that the other women were also naked, and clearly used to it and very relaxed, helped ease my discomfort – along with the experience of relaxing in the warm waters, with no need to rush or do anything, except to just be. It’s truly one of those ‘be in the moment’, ‘be present’ type of sensations that we tend to not have as often in our busy-ness.
My second experience at an onsen was in Takamatsu, where my son Johnny and I took the train from the port to a neighborhood on the edge of town called Busshozan. A short walk from the train was the onsen, and my son and I agreed to meet back outside an hour and half later. This onsen was filled with locals, and I was fascinated by the fact that both men and women were visiting in the middle of the day – they make their time at the onsen a priority.
Like most onsen, it is divided by gender, and each side has three outdoor baths, each with temperature variations of cool, warm and hot. I found myself getting a bit overheated by the hot bath, so I appreciated the opportunity to move to the cool bath and later to the warm one.
The area was not overly crowded but there seemed to be a steady flow of visitors to enjoy the onsen. There were older women there that seemed to be socializing, and young mothers together who had their little girls with them. Clearly I stuck out as a visitor, and one woman made hand signals to ask me how I ended up there; neither of us spoke the other’s language, but somehow we had a conversation, although she did enlist a young woman with some limited English skills to assist.
Historically, onsens have banned customers with tattoos due to the connection with the yakuza (gangs) in Japan. While this is less of a worry today, a number of onsens have held onto this rule. However, as international tourism increases and the awareness around different cultural meanings of tattoos in other countries rises, there are slowly more and more tattoo-friendly onsens. My son has tattoos, so I did have to investigate the onsens we were visiting and also get some tattoo coverups (like bandages).
With over 25,000 hot springs throughout the country, it is no surprise that Japan has built a culture around the onsen experience. When traveling in Japan, this is an area of culture that is easy to skip in favor of something more exciting. However, it is one of the best ways to get a true authentic experience of Japanese culture and the Japanese way to enjoy some time off.