Japan, a Hot Springs (Onsen) Paradise: Tips on Getting 10 Times More Enjoyment Out of Onsen
In Japan, hot springs bubble up everywhere, and for hundreds of years Japanese people have enjoyed them mainly for health benefits and socializing. Bathing at onsen is a great way to enjoy Japan—not just to try the various types and experience their reputed beneficial physical effects, but also to enjoy their natural settings and perhaps a leisurely stroll around the spa towns where they are often located. You might also be surprised to find that onsen waters come in different colors, green or black, for instance; many such waters are thought to help smooth the skin or relieve back pain. So, whether you’ve never tried onsen before or are already an habitué, it’s an experience not to be missed and one that you’re likely to enjoy.
Some Basic Knowledge before You Try Onsen
Hot springs are waters heated by geothermal energy and, in Japan, they’re practically everywhere. The country is reputed to have over 2,500 onsen; some gush to the surface, while others are reached by tapping subterranean sources more than 1,000 meters underground. Hot spring temperatures vary widely, from nearly 100ºC (211ºF) to as cool as 20ºC (68ºF). Everywhere in Japan, visitors will find hotels and traditional inns or day spas with onsen for their enjoyment.
The foremost benefits of hot springs bathing are that they warm the body and impart physical and mental relaxation. Bathing in waters just the right temperature activates the body’s various systems and is said to stimulate circulation and speed up the metabolism. Many onsen also contain certain dissolved minerals, which are said to help heal illness or injuries. Learning about the benefits of each hot spring you visit is one of the added pleasures of the experience.
Japanese people have been enthusiastic onsen bathers since ancient times. In the Edo period (1603–1868), especially, the habit of bathing at onsen spread rapidly among the general public and it soon became popular to spend weeks at a time at places with hot springs for rest and recuperation. This practice continues today, mainly in the Tohoku region in the northeastern part of the country.
Hot springs also frequently appear in literary works. For example, Niigata’s Echigo-Yuzawa Onsen is where the story takes place in Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and the setting for Botchan, by Soseki Natsume, is Ehime’s Dogo Onsen.
Seasonal Delights Add Enjoyment
Japan’s hot springs are often found in natural settings, among mountains, along the seashore or in narrow valleys, which add appeal to the bathing experience. The scenery reflecting the passing of the seasons—cherry blossoms in spring, the vibrant green of new leaves in summer, colorful autumn foliage, snowscapes in winter—is all the more enjoyable when viewed from a warm, relaxing bath. And open-air baths—roten-buro—offer possibly the greatest experience of all hot spring bathing, with nothing coming between you and the sunrise, sunset or dark night skies dotted with countless twinkling stars. Gunma’s Shiriyaki Onsen features a hand-dug open-air bath on a riverbank, an unusual opportunity to get truly close to nature.
And it isn’t just humans who are attracted to open-air bathing. At Jigokudani Onsen in Nagano, Japanese macaques can be observed taking a dip in the open-air baths, their facial expressions vividly conveying just how relaxed they feel. This unusual sight draws many visitors, but the baths here are reserved for the wildlife.
In the best-known onsen resort areas, little towns with restaurants, souvenir shops and tourist attractions have sprung up around the main hot springs facilities and feature a distinctive atmosphere. Among the most famous spa resorts are Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa and Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, which are very popular for relaxation and sightseeing among Japanese and overseas visitors alike.
In spa resorts, it’s customary for overnight guests to don the yukata (cotton kimono) and geta (traditional clogs) provided by their hotel or inn for a stroll around the town—try that for an authentic hot spring experience! And your visit won’t be complete unless you sample the hard-boiled eggs (boiled in the hot spring waters) or the manju (bean paste dumplings) sold at shops along your walk. Some spa resorts also offer hand or foot spas, which can be a good first encounter with an onsen since they don’t require complete disrobing.
Benefits from Mineral Composition of Onsen
There are 11 different categories of hot springs in Japan, which are classified according to their mineral composition. The most widespread is the sulphur hot spring, which can be recognized by its distinctive odor. Sulphur hot springs are common in mountain regions and can be considered the typical type of hot spring in Japan. Sulphur hot springs such as those at Shiobara Onsen in Tochigi and Unzen Onsen in Nagasaki soften the skin and are said to help bring relief for skin ailments and rashes, although the waters can irritate, so people with delicate skin should use caution. At Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi, Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa and Dogo Onsen in Ehime, the onsen are simple springs with colorless, odorless waters ideal for beginners. They are also soft and gentle to the skin. These waters are said to be good for neuralgia and back pain.
Alkaline soda hot springs, like Hokkaido’s Noboribetsu Onsen and Saga’s Ureshino Onsen, are recommended for women, as they supposedly beautify the skin. Hydrogen carbonate hot springs, rich in carbonation, are characterized by the fine bubbles that form on bathers’ skin; one of these is Tamagawa Onsen in Akita. This type of hot spring supposedly dilates the capillaries, helping lower blood pressure.
The waters of iron hot springs, rich in iron, are rust-colored; the best-known iron hot springs are Naruko Onsen, in Miyagi, and Yoshino Onsen, in Nara. Recommended for those with anemia, but if you dip a white towel in the water, it will turn red.
Chloride hot springs like those at Jozankei Onsen in Hokkaido and Yugawara Onsen in Kanagawa, are effective for warming the body and good for those who suffer from cold hands and feet, gynecological disorders, and so on.
Among the many other types are acid springs and sulfate springs, supposedly effective for healing wounds (Zao Onsen in Yamagata, Minakami Onsen in Gunma,Atami Onsen in Shizuoka, etc.), radium springs for relief of rheumatism and digestive tract ailments (Yamanashi’s Masutomi Onsen, etc.) and boric acid springs (Minoo Onsen in Osaka), which are reportedly good for eye diseases.
Please note that hot springs are “purported” to have efficacy but that their effectiveness has not been medically proven.
Some hot spring waters can also be drunk. You can tell when this is the case from the drinking cups placed near the taps from which the waters flow.
Colorful Onsen Waters
Black, white, green, red, brown…hot spring waters in Japan come in many different colors. Black hot springs are common in Tokyo and Chiba.
The dark color, which always surprises at first glance, comes from organic plant material. White hot springs are also quite common. In this case, clear waters develop cloudiness due to ingredients that have dissolved and become suspended in the water. Nyuto Onsen in Akita is popular for its white hot spring open-air bath.
Nagano’s Kumanoyu Onsen and Iwate’s Kunimi Onsen feature bright green waters, which supposedly occur due to components from sulfur and other substances. And Beppu Onsen in Oita is famous for its “Blood Pond Hell,” whose blood-red waters bubble vigorously and certainly do remind visitors of hell. Other hot springs—Ikaho Onsen in Gunma and Arima Onsen in Hyogo—are famous for brown waters, which come from the waters’ high iron content. Also of note is Nagano’s Goshiki Onsen, which means “waters of five colors,” a fascinating place where the color of the water changes depending on the temperature and the weather.
These colorful hot springs are miracles of nature—to enrich your travels, experience them for yourself.
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