Guest writer: Urusai_Uni#0007
One of the many uniquely wonderful things about Japan is it’s love for hot springs! Hot springs, or Onsen, are popular throughout Japan, but can be very daunting for tourists to visit. From etiquette to unique baths to what exactly makes a true hot spring, here’s your intro to Onsen!
What Are Onsen?
Put simply, an Onsen is a hot spring, aka water heated underground that comes to the surface. Japan is a very volcanically active country and has thousands of natural hot springs across it! To actually be classified as an Onsen, the spring must meet three main criteria:
1. All Natural!
Onsen are natural hot springs, not man made! A Sentō is like an Onsen in that it’s a public bath, but they are artificially heated, like running a bath at home.
What would a hot spring be if it wasn’t hot? Onsen must be at least 25ºC or 77ºF, which isn’t too hot, but most comfortable Onsen sit at roughly 39ºC to 42ºC (102ºF to 108ºF).
3. Rich in Minerals!
The last main criteria an Onsen needs to meet is to contain at least one out of 19 different minerals. These minerals create different bathing experiences and are even believed to have medicinal properties, but more on those later!
Onsen can be completely enclosed indoors or be outdoor baths. They can be run publicly by the city or privately by ryokan, traditionally styled hotels. Traditionally, men and women bathed together, but nowadays that’s incredibly uncommon, except in more rural areas! Onsen commonly are marked with the ゆ (yu) symbol meaning hot water, which makes it easy for children to recognize it, as opposed to using the kanji 湯 (yu).
So now you know what Onsen are, but how do you go about enjoying them? There’s quite a few rules and guidelines to follow in order to make the experience for Onsen enjoyable for everyone! This is where the idea of Onsen becomes daunting to many tourists, but rest assured, they’re not scary as they seem!
1. No Clothes!
This includes swimsuits! Onsen are public baths, not swimming pools. The main reason for this however, is to keep the bath as clean as possible. Some areas do allow swimsuits, but generally not. If you’re planning to visit an Onsen, public or private, check ahead on what they’re rules are. Another alternative is renting a room at a ryokan that has a private bath, although this can be much more expensive!
When I went to Japan in 2019, I was able to try several Onsen as well as go to a community Sentō with a group of friends. For me, this was one of the most nerve wracking parts, but I realized very quickly that no one cared and the most they did care was wondering why an American tourist was in the middle of Japan’s countryside!
2. Towels and Hair
This goes along a bit with clothes. Towels are not allowed in the bath, also to keep the water clean. Either you can rent a small and large towel, or one will be provided for you. The large towel is for drying off and is to be kept in the locker room. The small towel is your washcloth for the shower before entering the bath, and also to towel off at the end of your bath. The washcloth is not to be dipped into the water, and is usually either placed at the side of the bath or folded on your head!
Like the towels, your hair shouldn’t really be in the water either. Keep long hair tied up in a ponytail or bun!
After exiting the locker room, but before entering the Onsen, you’ll need to wash off! Onsen facilities have several showers you sit in front of on stools, either in a separate room or just outside the main bath. A main theme in enjoying Onsen is also keeping the water clean and showering before entering is the biggest way to do that!
4. Be considerate of others!
This one is pretty common sense, but respect that you’re in a public space for relaxing. Don’t run or swim and while it’s ok to talk, keep the noise to a minimum. Drinking, alcohol or otherwise, as well as drinking is prohibited in the bath. Another thing is to dry off before going back into the locker room, so the floor doesn’t become slippery!
While it’s changing slowly and surely, people with tattoos are generally not allowed to enter public Onsen. That being said, being foreigners gives a little bit of leeway, and the ladies on my trip who had tattoos were never bothered about it. The best thing to do is to check ahead if tattoos are allowed or not. Asking politely and letting staff know ahead of time may even convince them to make an exception. Be warned though that having a tattoo may get you barred, so be prepared!
Types of Onsen
Now that we’ve covered what Onsen are and what to expect, we can get into some of the fun and unique Onsen to visit across Japan!
Gantetsu-sen, or Iron Springs, are high in Iron Content and can be quickly identified by their reddish-brown color. These hot springs are supposedly good for things like anemia.
Tansan-sen are “carbonated” onsen. Bubbles stick to you as you enter, and they are certified to be good for improving circulation and softening skin. These hot springs are fairly rare.
Radioactive Springs are exactly what they sound like! Sometimes called radium springs, these baths contain miniscule amounts of radioactive particles that are supposed to leave the body upon exiting.
The Jigokudani Monkey Park is a part of a national park in Nagano where groups of Japanese Macaques enjoy sitting in the hot springs during the day. These springs aren’t open for human use but you can visit the park and watch the monkeys enjoy them!
Onsen Theme Parks are also just what it sounds like! Some, like the Edo-Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo, recreate the Edo period with themed shopping, games and foods, as well as 14 different baths to try! Others, like the Hakone Kowakien Yunessun Hot Springs and Spa Resort in Kanagawa entices people with odd types of baths. Including, but not limited to, a sake bath and a coffee bath, guests can experience the fun of a waterpark mixed with the relaxing nature of an Onsen!
Onsen is one of the fun and unique traditions of Japan that goes back centuries and can be enjoyed by people of all types! Hopefully this article helped pique your interest in visiting one on your next trip to Japan, or even helped alleviate any fears you might have had!