With its strong volcanic activity 🌋, the Japanese archipelago has thousands of natural hot springs - much to the delight of locals and tourists alike.
An onsen is a hot spring bath of geothermally heated water that provides many benefits to the body and mind. Often located in an exceptional setting, hot springs offer a unique experience of relaxation and well-being.
So, put aside your daily worries and recharge your batteries by reading our article!
🤓 What is an Onsen?
The word "Onsen" 温泉 consists of two kanji, meaning "hot" and "spring".
It refers to a hot spring of volcanic origin that has medicinal and regenerative properties.
Often located outside in a paradisiacal setting, the onsen has an area reserved for women and another for men. It is important to note that nudity is often mandatory in Japanese spas.
The naturally heated water must imperatively be above 25°C. Note that most of the time, the water temperature of the pools is around 50°C, which can seem quite hot 🥵 when you are not used to it.
Kusatsu Onsen spa, northwest of Tokyo.
In addition to the baths, onsen often feature food and accommodation services as well. Hot springs are frequently found in traditional Japanese hotels (Ryokan).
In the archipelago, there exist many types of spas with outdoor or indoor pools, with varying temperatures, more or less transparent or sulfurous waters and sometimes even scented with green tea! Enough to delight all balneotherapy enthusiasts!
👌 Hot springs that have been appreciated for ages
Ever since ancient Japan, bathing has been a ritual of purification in the Shinto religion. The practice of Misogi, still used today, consists in immersing oneself under a waterfall or bathing in a natural spring to eliminate the defilements of the body and purify the spirit.
Takaragawa onsen in autumn colors. ©eariewboo / Adobe stock
The origin of the hot spring bath in Japan dates back to ancient times. It can be found in old myths and writings. Some scholars believe that the volcanic water springs were the foundation of Japanese civilization. The salt they contained tended to attract wildlife, which was why people settled around the hot springs.
Around the 8th century, bathing was first practiced by the nobles of the imperial court who washed themselves before major ceremonies. The practice then spread to the Japanese population. At that time, wooden tubs were used as baths.
Moreover, the ritual was common among monks since Buddhism and its sutras praised the benefits of hot bath to avoid diseases and attract happiness.
Onsen Goshono-yu in Kinosaki, the village with 7 public onsen. ©DP Toyooka City
Gradually, onsen were no longer just sacred places used to honor deities or to purify oneself, but also real therapeutic remedies.
In addition, the oldest natural hot springs were already used in ancient times because of their curative functions, while the practice of spa stays dates back to the end of the feudal period. From the Edo period onwards, Japanese doctors began to prescribe onsen cures for their health benefits.
Nowadays, Japanese hot springs attract a lot of people - with more than 130 million visits every year. In the archipelago, men and women of all ages regularly visit them to relax and enjoy the virtues of hot springs.
❓ What is the difference between an onsen and a sento?
Unlike an onsen whose water comes from natural volcanic springs, a sento is a bath filled with city water. In the past, when the people of the archipelago did not yet have bathtubs 🛁 they would go to the neighborhood public bath and take advantage of it to socialize. Despite the advent of the bathroom, the tradition remained alive and Japanese people still visit sento to relax.
Sento, public bath in Tokyo ©Soyoung Han
Onsens are usually located outside, in the countryside or in the mountains amidst beautiful landscapes. Thus, you can enjoy a bath in the open air while contemplating Mount Fuji or even the sea. As for the sento, they are indoors and are rather found in the cities.
|❓ Did you know? The traditional garment worn in onsen is the yukata. This lightweight kimono is very comfortable to wear after bathing. Besides, its name literally means "bathing garment".
👍 The benefits of hot springs
According to Gotô Konzan, a great doctor during the Edo period, the hot springs of the onsens would stimulate and rebalance the Ki (vital energy). Volcanic waters are indeed full of minerals such as sulfur, salt and iron... with numerous therapeutic properties. They are particularly recognized for their regenerating and healing power.
In addition to beautifying the skin thanks to its antioxidant virtues, the spa water of the onsens cures illnesses. Thus, the baths cure joint pain, rheumatism, skin problems, metabolic problems and many other ailments. Note that to keep its properties, the mineral water must flow directly from the hot spring and be constantly renewed.
👉 The rules to respect in a Japanese bath
You should know that the entrance is mostly charged (about 500 yens). Also, you will have to leave (all) your stuff in the checkroom, because nudity is mandatory. Modest people should avoid going there... However, you can keep a small towel nearby for the exit of the bath.
|❓ Did you know? The Japanese towel used in baths is called tenugui. It's a thin cotton towel, usually measuring 35 by 90 cm, with high absorbency and quick drying. Tenugui can be white or printed in a variety of patterns.
To enter an onsen, you have to be as clean as possible, because the water in the pools is not disinfected. A meticulous shower is required (and necessary).
Then, it is important to stay calm so as not to disturb the Zen atmosphere of the place. It is forbidden to dive, to make noise or to run! Also, you must keep your hair tied up and never dip your head or else you will be glared at.
⛔ Tattoos and onsen, incompatible?
Some onsen do not allow tattooed people. In Japanese culture, the tattoo refers to the yakuza and organized crime. It is therefore very much frowned upon by the locals.
However, this rule tends to be softened with the evolution of morals and more and more onsen do not make this distinction anymore. In all cases, it is advisable to inquire in advance to be sure to be able to enter the establishment.
🌋 The best onsen and hot springs in Japan
If you have the chance to visit Japan, we highly recommend you to try the unforgettable experience of the onsen to soothe your body and mind. In the Land of the Rising Sun, hot springs are everywhere and the spas are very varied. There is something for everyone.
Nyuto Onsen mixed baths in Akita Prefecture ©Narongsak Nagadhana / Shutterstock.com
Here are 10 amazing places that will definitely delight you!
👙 Swimsuit accepted
- Amagiso Onsen (Shizuoka Prefecture)
- Hakone Kowakien Yunessun (Kanagawa prefecture)
☮ Tattoos accepted
- Dogo onsen (Ehime prefecture)
- Sekizenkan Ryokan (Gunma prefecture)
🔑 Private baths
- Takefue (Kumamoto prefecture)
- Hakone Yuryo (Kanagawa prefecture)
👫 Mixed baths
- Fukiage onsen hounkaku (Miyagi prefecture)
- Nyuto Onsen (Akita prefecture)
- Kawarage Oh-yu-daki (Akita prefecture)
- Kokanesaki Furofushi Onsen (Aomori prefecture)
Since the dawn of time: Japanese people have always been fond of onsen. For this reason, the ritual of bathing is deeply rooted in their culture through the Shinto religion and Buddhism.
Recognized by Japanese medicine for their numerous therapeutic virtues, onsens also offer an exceptional moment of relaxation in an often idyllic setting.
In Japan, macaques also like to bask in hot springs! ©Jonathan Forage
If you have the opportunity to take a hot spring bath in Japan, go for it! The onsen is a unique experience not to be missed!