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Japan is literally soaking in hot springs, with a tradition of bathing that stretches back 2,000 years. Called onsen in Japanese, these hot-spring resorts offer mind-boggling variations in the simple act of soaking in hot mineral waters, from simple outdoor affairs to theme-based sophisticated facilities. Even mineral content varies widely, with certain baths attributed to curing different ailments.
In any case, whether large or small, humble or grand, the procedure for bathing in a public bath is the same all over Japan. After completely disrobing and placing clothes in a locker or basket, bathers enter the bath area and head to the faucets with basins and stools, where they then soap down and wash off all traces of soap. Only when they're clean do they enter the bath, which may be so hot that it takes some time getting used to, especially for novice bathers. But with time, the hot water ebbs away all cares and tension, the perfect end to a day of travel. The second-most important rule of public bathing (after soaping down and rinsing prior to entering the water): never pull the plug, as public baths should be thought of in same vein as whirlpools. In any case, hot-spring spas are so popular, especially among groups of family, friends, and co-workers, that the Japanese are apt to visit the baths several times during a one night's stay: upon arrival at the resort, after dinner, and before departing the next day.
For a rundown of hot-spring resorts throughout Japan, see http://www.jnto.go.jp/eng/arrange/attraction/amusement/onsen/onsen-pl.html