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Hugh Cann is a tour leader for InsideJapan. He has lived in Hiroshima for over 15 years, so it’s safe to say he knows a fair bit about Japanese culture! Here is his beginner’s guide to onsen (hot-spring) bathing in Japan.
Hot spring history
In ancient times, before there was much knowledge of health or medication, hot springs were a sacred place where people went to cure their injuries and diseases. Back then, bathing not only meant washing the dirt from the physical body but also cleansing oneself of the spiritual grime of the mortal world. In the Edo period (1603–1868), people with diseases would stay for weeks or more at hot-spring area waiting to be cured – so beginning the Japanese tradition of the hot-spring inn (ryokan).
These days, though many still believe in the health-giving properties of hot springs, onsen-bathing has become more of a leisure experience, playing a central role in the domestic tourism market.
In addition to onsen, Japan also has sento bathhouses, which use artificially heated tap water rather than natural spring water. As more people acquired indoor plumbing, the popularity of sento has dwindled, though they are still a popular place for social gathering and relaxation. Sento differ from onsen in that onsen must contain at least one of 19 chemical elements, including radon and metabolic acid, and must have a natural temperature of 25 degrees or higher.
Types of onsen
Japan is literally bubbling with natural hot springs (onsen), and nearly every region of the country has its share of springs and resort towns. There are over 2,300 onsen throughput the country, some with waters gushing to the surface, others tapping subterranean sources more than 1,000 metres underground. The temperatures vary widely, from nearly 100ºC (211ºF) to as cool as 20ºC (68ºF).
Hot-spring baths come in many varieties: indoors or outdoors; gender-separated or mixed; developed or undeveloped. Many hot-spring baths belong to traditional inns (ryokan), while others are bathhouses open to the public. An overnight stay at a hot spring ryokan is a unique and wonderful experience for visitors to Japan.
There are 11 different categories of hot spring classified according to mineral composition, and each is thought to confer certain health benefits. Sulphur hot springs, such as those at Unzen, are thought to soften the skin and ease dermatological ailments. Meanwhile, alkaline soda hot springs such as those at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido form tiny bubbles on the skin and are thought to lower blood pressure by dilating the capillaries, while the rust-coloured, iron-rich hot springs of Naruko and Yoshino are said to be beneficial for anaemia.
Among the many other types are acid and sulphate springs, supposedly effective for healing wounds (Zao Onsen is one example), radium springs for relief of rheumatism and digestive tract ailments (Yamanashi’s Masutomi Onsen), and boric acid springs (Minoo Onsen in Osaka), which are reportedly good for eye diseases.
Some hot spring waters are also thought to have beneficial properties when ingested. You can tell when this is the case from the drinking cups placed near the taps from which the waters flow.
Whatever the local lore, however, it’s important to note that the efficacy of hot springs has not been medically proven!
There are certain rules regarding hot-spring bathing to make the experience enjoyable for all users. First-timers might find the rules a little awkward at first, but remembering the adage “when in Rome…” will make experience more enjoyable, relaxing and safe for you and everybody else.
Bathe in the buff
To begin with, bathers must completely disrobe. The Japanese consider using towels or a swimsuit to bathe unhygienic. If you are put off by the idea of appearing naked in front of others, don’t despair – many inns have kashikiri (private) baths available.
In Japan, tattoos are still closely associated with the criminal world, and are banned from many onsen. If you have a tattoo it is wise to check beforehand whether they are accepted at the hot spring you intend to visit. In many cases covering with waterproof bandage is acceptable.
Everyone shares the bathwater so it’s important to to keep it clean. Japanese people always wash and rinse thoroughly before getting into the bath, and you should never take your towel into the pool. Unlike the local pool in your hometown, jumping in, swimming, and any kind of horsing around is frowned on.
After you leave the bathroom, don’t forget to towel off excess water before you return to the changing room. Dripping water onto the changing room floor makes it slippery and dangerous.
A couple of other pointers to remember are to avoid bathing after drinking alcohol, after playing energetic sports, or immediately before or after eating. It’s also best not to bathe more than three times in one day. One 30-minute bath supposedly consumes the same amount of energy as running 1,000 meters at full speed, and its best to rest for a while to restore energy and replenish fluids after bathing.