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Onsen: Japan’s Healing Waters

Immerse Yourself in Japanese Hot Spring Culture

Hakone Springs in Japan

The onsen experience is one of the best ways to get to know Japan. The onsen, or hot springs, is one place where—young and old, wealthy and modest—can mingle without social barriers. With its volcanic history, Japan literally gurgles with thermal activity. Mineral contents are taken seriously, and the Japanese government regularly inspects and analyzes the waters. In the changing rooms of each onsen, you will see an analysis of the water and what ailments it is known to alleviate. Thermal waters have been used for centuries to treat conditions such as arthritis, skin diseases, rheumatism, and nervous disorders. In recent years, they are a popular panacea for stress.

The variety of springs is endless. There are ancient onsen that have been in use for millennia, springs with milky-colored alkaline waters, and luxury baths with views of Mt. Fuji or the Pacific Ocean. There are sand baths on the beach in Beppu, and mountain baths in Nagano, where snow monkeys bathe. Most onsen are constructed of decorative rocks taken from nearby riverbeds, while others are made of cedar. Everyone’s favorite, though, are the open-air baths that are commonly set in Japanese gardens, overlooking the sea, a river, or mountain gorges.

Ryokan — The Japanese Inn

Whether your ryokan is modest or luxurious, you will be expected to leave your shoes at the door and replace them with slippers before entering the tatami room, where you will be served green tea. All guests receive a basket containing a yukata, which is a cotton kimono for wearing around the inn and to and from the baths.

Ryokan are the best way to visit a hot spring at a leisurely pace, providing ample opportunities to soak throughout the day. Traditionally, dinner and breakfast are served in your room. Many onsen inns open their doors to day trippers as well. A few inns have English-speaking staff, though it may be best to arrange to visit with a Japanese friend or a goodwill guide.

Hakone and Onsen Towns in Japan

An express train from Tokyo can transport you in little more than an hour to Hakone National Park, home to Mt. Fuji. Hakone has blossomed into one of the largest spa towns in Japan. The area is also one of the most accessible to the casual visitor, having catered to Tokyo weekenders for decades. Tenzan is a large onsen complex complete with cedar baths, outdoor baths, and the popular “massage waterfall.”

As wonderful as Hakone is as the quintessential spa town, it is by no means the only onsen area in Japan. The Izu peninsula features craggy ocean views. Interior Izu has Shuzenji Spa, favored by writers. Nagano is known for its ski resorts and mountain spas, just to name a few. With more than 20,000 hot springs in Japan you are sure to find one not far away. As you soak, remember the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: “You will always find an answer in the sound of water.”

Onsen Etiquette

  • An excellent book on Japan’s onsens is A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs by Anne Hotta and Yoko Ishiguro.

  • Check your modesty at the door of the changing room. Baskets or lockers are always available to leave your yukata (clothing).

  • One of the bathing rituals that often confuses foreign visitors is the protocol of taking a bath before your bath. For obvious reasons of hygeine you are expected to rinse thoroughly before getting into an onsen.

  • If you are an overnight guest at an inn, a small towel is provided with your yukata and is used for scrubbing and drying yourself. Day-trippers are expected to bring their own towel or buy one at the reception desk. The small towel is also used to preserve your modesty until you are in the water. When entering the bath, it is best to ease yourself in slowly to adjust to the hot temperature—and it is frowned upon to make a big splash. The small towel is often folded and placed on the head to keep it dry.

  • Once you have opened your pores during your initial soak, bathers typically return to the shower area for a soaping and scrubbing routine. Once these ablutions are complete and all soap is rinsed off, you are prepared for another soak.

  • When you are ready to leave, it is considered good form to dry off in the bath area, rather than in the changing room.

For More Info

Japan National Tourism Organization also has kiosks in the arrival halls at Tokyo’s Narita airport and Osaka/Kyoto Kansai International Airport.

Onsens and Ryokan

For detailed onsen information on each area of Japan, with tips on where to stay, visit Outdoor Japan.

Descriptions, advice, and bookings for ryokan and minshiku (traditional Japanese inns and hot spring resorts):

Hakone is easily reached from Tokyo via a special express train: Odakyu Railway’s “Romance Car” (about 1.5 hours). Odakyu Railways also offer special passes for visiting Hakone, Mount Fuji, and the Izu Peninsula (The Hakone Weekday Pass is valid for two days for around $40, and the Hakone Freepass is valid for three days for $55). Odakyu’s passes include express train passage to and from Tokyo Shinjuku Station and allow discounted admission fees to several hot springs, the Hakone Open Air Museums, and other attractions. Odakyu, as the Hakone specialist, can book inns and hotels in the area as wel.

Fuji Hakone Guest House is a kind of backpackers lodge popular with foreign visitors.

Kansuiro Ryokan and Onsen is a traditional Japanese Inn in the heart of Hakone. More than that, Kansuiro is one of the seven major source springs in Hakone and a Cultural Property of Japan.

Tenzan Hot Springs is open to day trippers. Tenzan provides a free shuttle bus from Hakone-Yumoto station to its spa.

Related Topics
Cultural Travel
Cultural Travel in Asia
Related Topics
The Three Best Hot Spring Resorts in Japan

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