Onsens: a national pastime

  • Onsens are Japanese hot springs for bathing. Bathing in onsens in Japan apparently started as a Buddhist ritual performed by monks. Onsens still remain extremely popular in Japan, which is remarkable considering it is a culture started some 3000 years ago. Yet, its lasting popularity is easily understandable for anyone who has treated herself to an onsen holiday in Japan.

    Onsen holidays in Japan typically involve a trip to the countryside for over 2 to 3 days. Japanese people would catch a train to the countryside, play tourists in the day and then check into these ryokans in the late afternoon to soak in onsens. They later enjoy a sumptuous meal in their ryokans and then soak in onsens one more time, relax and retire for the night.

    Hot spring waters are not simply heated water, but they also contain dissolved minerals that have good health properties. The composition of the minerals differs depending on each region, each carrying different health properties. For example, sulphate is good for healing cuts and sores while chloride helps the body retain heat, and saline onsen makes skin soft and gentle.

    Since onsens are public areas, there is certain etiquette for users to follow. Some rules include removing all clothing before entering the bath area, washing thoroughly before entering the hot spring, and keeping your hair out of the hot spring. Yet for many tourists, it is not so much the rules but the idea of bathing stark naked with friends and family and strangers that takes awhile to get used to!

    Onsens are found everywhere in Japan, thanks to active geothermal activity throughout the country. Popular onsen destinations include surrounding regions of Tokyo, such as Hakone or Nikko, as well as regions in Nagano, where tourists get the chance to soak in with adorable snow monkeys.