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The Onsen - Japanese Hot Springs
By: W. Dire Wolff

During your stay in Japan, there may be an Onsen (hot spring) at the hotel or Ryokan ( Japanese Inn) you stay at. You will find the Onsen is a wonderful way to relax after a long day of business or sightseeing. The Japanese people have been enjoying the pleasures of the Onsens' hot waters for centuries. Local bath houses and trips to hot spring resorts provide the Japanese people with a luxurious form of relaxation. Although in modern times most people visit the Onsen to relax, the Japanese government also recognizes the onsen as capable of providing medical treatment for certain ailments. Furthermore, some Buddhists of Japan once had integrated hot springs bathing into religious ceremonies There are numerous areas of Japan where people can find an abundance of hot springs. In these areas there are usually hot spring resorts with nicely developed facilities. For those a little more adventurous, onsens in more natural surroundings can be found in rural areas of Japan.

The volcanic activity that is constantly churning under the land mass of Japan has created devastating earthquakes. But this same force of nature also has created the abundance of hot springs there. There are over 2,000 known onsens in Japan. In some areas of Japan, the power of the hot springs is used to produce electricity in Geothermal Power Plants. Onsens are a great nature resource in Japan, and most recently they have been exploited to encourage tourism.

In the past, shared community baths were a part of local Japanese cultures. As more western influences have crept into the Japanese culture, baths shared by both men and women have become less popular. In particular, younger Japanese women prefer to frequent onsens with separate bathing facilities for men and women. Now most resorts and hotels offer women and men separate bathing areas and pools. In some Onsens, a very special outside or deluxe hot spring area is alternated for use by men or women, depending on the time of the day, or day of the week. There may be more standard hot springs available, during the off hours if a special Onsen exists with regulated hours of usage. In some places, mixed sex communal baths are still in operation.

Hot springs in outdoors and wilderness settings can be found for the more adventurous travelers. These hot springs may be accessed for a small fee or sometimes undeveloped hot springs are free for usage. In some cases, the outdoor hot springs can only be reached by backpackers or after a short hike. In other areas, showers and changing rooms have been developed close to parking areas located by the undeveloped pools. Books and resources can be purchased that describe various outdoor onsens available for use by backpackers and hikers.

Using an Onsen is a part of the Japanese culture that the westerner may want to experience, but there is some etiquette that should be followed in the process. There may be a small fee to enter the Onsen and usually some soap and towels may be purchased if you don’t have your own. The onsen is a place of relaxation, and bathing is not allowed in the actual pools. Before entering the hot springs, you are expected to bathe. After washing your body, you can enter the pools and lounge in the hot waters.

Once inside the changing room, locate an empty locker in the locker room and put your clothes inside. Head out of the locker room and take a quick shower in the bathing area. The shower is just a primer for a major washing that follows. You can find a wash basin and small stool provided that you carry to the hot and cold water spigots and mini showers that line the wall of the washing room. Using your wash basin, wash cloth, and soap, thoroughly lather every square inch of your body. The process of washing yourself is an important custom and may take up to a half hour for some people to complete. After washing yourself, rinse all of the soap off your body. Once you are feeling squeaky clean, you are ready to head out to the onsen.

If you stay at an Onsen resort, or there are baths at a ryokan you visit, there may be both an inside and outside pools. The pool(s) may be built of natural stone or could be constructed to appear as a small swimming pool. Slowly step down into one of the hot pools of water of the Japanese bath and prepare to steep. If you are not used to hot water you may be surprised that the temperature is more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees centigrade). Temperatures can vary from under 77 degrees Fahrenheit to over 108 degrees Fahrenheit. There may be bubbling water from a Jacuzzi stream that serves to further relax you. In some resorts, you may be able to enjoy a bottle of fine sake (Japanese rice wine) while relaxing in the bath.

At some Onsens there will be a cold bath for you to take a plunge into after soaking in the hot bath. This will provide a giant shock to your senses and will refresh your sense of vitality. If a cold bath is not available a freezing cold shower will work just as well. After your sensory overload in the cold you can slip back into the hot bath. Repeat this process as often as you may enjoy it.

Most people will find the Onsen is a wonderful way to relax after a busy day in Japan.


This story appeared in part for a story for Japan SnowSports@Dead.Net by: W. Dire Wolff


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