Have you ever experienced bathing in a hot spring or onsen (温泉) in Japan? In the summer of 2016, I took my European husband to an onsen ryokan (温泉旅館), a Japanese-style hotel with hot springs. Apparently, his expectations were hugely betrayed in many ways. He had heard about onsen many times before but imagined something very different. I think these facts about onsen that I took for granted as a Japanese could be surprising for non-Japanese people. So let me share five things about onsen that you might not know about!
Onsen is not simply a spa. It often involves the whole town/area and provides other sightseeing activities. A town or area famous for onsen is called an “onsengai (温泉街).” For example, in the Kanto area (関東地方), Hakone (箱根), Kusatsu (草津), Ikaho (伊香保), and Kinugawa (鬼怒川) are some of the well-known onsen towns. They are popular among both Japanese and international tourists. Generally speaking, an onsengai has several onsens, onsen ryokans, and local souvenir shops.
A typical onsen ryokan experience is like this: While you stay in a comfortable and luxurious Japanese room, you can bathe in the onsen as many times as you want. A traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast are also served and each onsen ryokan has a souvenir shop inside. It’s refreshing to go for a walk outside in the morning before or after breakfast as onsen towns are often surrounded by beautiful nature.
If you are too shy to be naked in front of others, why not book a private onsen? Some onsens and onsen ryokans offer private onsen services, which means that the whole onsen is yours for an appointed time.
I personally had a fabulous experience at Minakamikan (水上館) in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture (群馬県). I enjoyed a beautiful and spacious Japanese room, delicious Japanese dinner and breakfast, and a private onsen for 45 minutes (reservation necessary) there. The onsen that I chose was not too big and was suitable for two to three people. Nevertheless, the design and atmosphere of the private onsen and the outdoor scenery made my stay really special. If you’d like to try a private onsen at Minakamikan, make sure that the room type you choose includes the private onsen service.
I often see the image of several Japanese macaques bathing in hot springs surrounded by snow. In guidebooks and promotional movies of Japan, this image almost always appears and enchants me. I won’t say this scene doesn’t exist in reality. But, to be fair, it is very rare. It’s unlikely that you will witness monkeys bathing in hot springs during your stay in Japan. I have never encountered it myself, despite over two decades of residing in Japan.
To see these macaques, you have to go to specific places such as Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑).
If someone is to ask me, “Do mixed-sex onsens truly exist,” I will immediately answer, “Yes, they do! But not many people are willing to try them.”
The basic idea of mixed-sex onsens is that both men and women share the same bath. You will still have to follow the general manners and rules when bathing in an onsen, so you are supposed to be naked. Theoretically speaking, couples and families can enjoy the onsen together by utilizing mixed-sex onsens. It’s simply for everyone. Yet, in fact, most couples and families prefer private onsens over mixed-sex onsens.
Furthermore, nowadays, mixed-sex onsens are not so common. Single-sex onsens are way more common and popular. You have to especially look for a mixed-sex onsen to experience it. But obviously, I’m not a mixed-sex onsen specialist. I have never used it myself and I don’t think any of my female friends have used it either. But I heard that there are a few women who willingly bathe in mixed-sex onsens. I assume it’s more difficult to find them than bathing macaques.
There are foods made with onsen water and vapor. Onsen tamago is a half-boiled egg. With the traditional method, people soak chicken eggs in onsen and wait for 20 minutes or so to cook onsen tamago.
On the other hand, onsen manju is a bun with sweet bean paste inside, steamed with onsen vapor. Apparently, onsen manju is softer and moister than normal manju, thanks to onsen minerals.
I’m not sure whether all onsen manju and onsen tamago in Japan are made according to the original methods, but as long as they are sold in onsen towns, they are onsen tamago and onsen manju!
How many of these onsen facts do you know? If you have a chance to go to an onsen, you’ll see how it is a huge part of Japanese culture. Being naked with friends or families in an onsen might sound a bit weird for people from some countries, but there are many fantastic aspects, too. It is healthy, relaxing, cheap, and fun. You might start enjoying onsen yourself soon. Have a wonderful onsen experience!