Being in Japan, it is a must-try to visit an onsen. This is the Japanese word for hot springs although it can also refer to both indoor and outdoor hot bathing facilities close to hot springs. Japan does have thousands of natural hot springs because it sits on a highly volcanic area. Onsen is a Japanese tradition and popular as a tourist destination.
Finding the hot springs is not difficult at all. You can choose from public baths to privately run facilities that are part of hotel or B&B amenities. Ideally, it would be recommended to visit a private facility first before sampling the public facilities that are adeptly run by local municipalities.
The Naked Communion
The Japanese use the term “naked communion: to describe a tradition of getting to know people. The hot springs are a perfect venue because it is a casual environment where no one judges the other by appearance, material wealth, or background.
The Traditional Onsen
If you’re looking for the authentic onsen experience, find one that is located outdoors and the water is not powered by electricity but natural heat from the ground. Many of the indoor hot springs uses hot tap water. You should also inquire about the composition of the water because a traditional onsen should have one or more of the 19 chosen chemical elements and be at the minimum temperature of 25 degrees Celsius prior to reheating for man-made springs.
One tradition that has changed is the hot springs for both men and women. There is now gender-specific hot springs especially in urban areas. This is due to the western influence in Japan which began in the mid 1880s.
Etiquette in the Hot Springs
There are a few basic, often unspoken, rules that new visitors to hot springs should be aware of. They are:
- You need to be clean before slipping into the hot springs. Do this by taking a shower before traveling to the hot springs and then washing down before entering the spring.
- Don’t bring your own stool or buckets. The facility will provide.
- Don’t soap or shampoo while in the water although you can bring in a small hand towel if the facility allows it
- Do not put your head under water
- People with tattoos are often banned from traditional onsen because of a common perception that the person with the tattoo could be dangerous – even if the tattoo is that of a flower, the sign of peace, or other non-aggressive image
- There is no jumping or rowdiness allowed
- Some facilities do not allow swimsuits while others require it
Are there risks in public hot springs? The fact is, many Japanese believe in the medicinal effects of hot springs to relieve hypertension because of its relaxing properties. Choose your facility well and you won’t have to worry about unsanitary conditions or contracting an infectious disease. In Japan though, the government takes cleanliness and sanitation very seriously so look for the accreditation and good feedback in helping you select an onsen.