Onsen: Japanese Bathing Culture
With 75% of the country being mountainous, much of it volcanic, it is no wonder that Japan has more than 3,000 onsen (natural hot springs). There are many hot spring cities, towns, or villages located in areas with historically or chemically significant hot springs. The Japanese love this bathing culture. For thousands of years, the Japanese have regarded bathing in onsen as both a healthy and relaxing experience.
What is Onsen?
Onsen is a naturally occurring hot spring, usually caused by geothermal activity. According to the Hot Springs Act enacted by the Japanese government in 1948, onsen must consist of natural spring water with a temperature of at least 25°C in its natural state and contain at least 19 specific minerals or chemical substances. These microelements can help promote healthy skin, reduce pain and even strengthen the immune system.
In addition to the healing ability, hot springs are believed to have mystical and sacred powers: Japanese culture has established a link between water and religion. According to ancient Shintoism, onsen was considered “healing waters” with mystical properties, which led to their original role in Shinto purification rituals. They were also used as healing baths for the emperor and, over time, for other members of the upper class. During this period, onsen was a luxury for royalty and nobility. It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that the onsen gained popularity and accessibility to the general public. Since many houses did not have bathrooms, going to onsen or bathhouses became part of everyday life. The Japanese firmly believe that bathing together builds close family bonds and strengthens friendships. They deem that communication barriers are broken when all clothes and accessories are off the table. Therefore, going to the onsen together is a popular activity for families and even sometimes coworkers.
Types of Onsen
In Japan, the term onsen refers to both natural hot springs and places that provide hot springs, such as hotels, ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and minshuku (bed and breakfast). These places of business offer natural hot springs, residences, and delicious Japanese cuisine. The following are some common types of onsen:
- Onsen (hot springs): They are natural hot springs rather than artificial onsen. They are usually classified as volcanic or non-volcanic.
- Roten-buro/Noden-buro (open-air onsen): An outdoor hot spring where you can bathe while appreciating the tranquil natural beauty of Japan.
- Sento (public bath): It is made up of heated water rather than a natural hot spring. It is common in major cities.
- Super-sento (bath center): A public bath with a variety of facilities, such as different styles of baths, mineral compositions (often artificial), spas, massages, restaurants, and rest areas.
- Dai-yokujo (large bathhouse): It’s the large bath in a hotel or ryokan, which may or may not be a natural hot spring.
- Ashi-yu (foot bath): It can be found on the street and are usually free in some onsen villages and resort towns.
- Utase-yu (A hot spring where water splashes down like a waterfall): Bathers sit under the waterfall and let the water hit them like a massage.
- Mizu-buro (A cold water bath): It is usually attached to the main bath of a bathhouse.
- Kashikiri-buro (private onsen bath): It is a hot spring bath that bathers can rent for private use. It can be found in high-end hotels and Japanese inns.
Etiquette of Onsen
- Shower before bathing: Onsen are for relaxation, not for cleaning. For hygiene reasons, you need to wash your body before entering the onsen.
- No bathing suits or personal clothing: Some onsen may allow you to wear a towel (usually for females). However, in general, you are not allowed to wear anything in the bathing area but your birthday suit!
- Use towels properly: Higher-end onsen will provide you with two towels: a large one for drying yourself in the locker room and a small one that you can bring in with you for washing. You can cover your private parts with the small one when you enter the onsen, but you can't put the towel into any of the baths with you. You'll often see people place their small towel behind them on a ledge connected to the bath. You can also put it on your head and even dampen it. This may help you not to feel as faint if you're not used to super hot baths that may be in the onsen. If you decide to put it on your head, just be careful not to let it fall into the bath.
- Tie up your long hair so that it isn't touching the water in the bath.
- No tattoos: In Japan, tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia. If you have a tattoo, please inform the staff in advance. If it's a small one, they may allow you to cover it with something that will conceal it.
- No alcohol: Alcohol in your system combined with hot water is a bad combination for your blood pressure.
- No diving, splashing, or swimming: The onsen is for relaxation, not for any kinds of sports. Enter and exit each bath slowly and carefully to avoid disturbing others.
- No photos/videos: This should be a given, and this, of course, includes the locker rooms.
- Lower your voice: The onsen is a public space, so try to keep quiet conversations with the people you are with.
- After bathing, you must dry off your entire body as much as possible before entering the locker room. An easy way of doing this is using the small towel that you've been carrying with you. You can squeeze all of the water out of that towel, then use it to dry yourself. You can squeeze it a few times during the process. The idea is simply not to go into the locker room dripping wet.
- Watch your steps: The floor is slippery due to the minerals in the onsen
- Stay hydrated: Drink water before and after the onsen.
- If you feel dizzy or uncomfortable, leave the onsen immediately.