08 Aug 21

Japan’s wonderful onsens

Chris Kavanagh Japan

What is a Japanese onsen?

An onsen is hot spring, although the term is often extended to also describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. For many visitors, the onsen is somewhat unfamiliar territory and the whole concept of communal bathing may seem a little intimidating and even slightly uncomfortable as you will be sharing a bath with strangers wearing nothing but your birthday suit.

I would urge you to give it a go though – bathing in an onsen is a great way to rejuvenate tired muscles after a long day of trekking and leaves you feeling refreshed and clean. I dare say it might even become an addiction!

Due to Japan being located in a volcanic zone, natural hot springs are numerous and extremely popular in Japan – for hundreds of years Japanese people have enjoyed onsens as a way of socialising and for their many health benefits and healing qualities. They are also an important part of religious traditions with pilgrims performing hot water purification rituals in preparation for visiting sacred sites.

Did you say hot spring flowers?

For the Japanese, the purity and the quality of the water is the main factor. Hot spring waters are rich in minerals and by law (!) all onsens must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements such as iron or sulphur.

Due to the high mineral content, you may sometimes find small white clumps floating in an onsen. These are minerals clinging together – in Japanese, it is called “Yu-no-hana”, translating as “hot spring flowers”. They are a sign of high-quality hot spring water. The strong mineral content may also stain baths and for those not used to this phenomena, the bathwater may seem unclean. However, it is actually the opposite – it is very pure natural onsen water!

What are the rules and etiquette to bathe in a Japanese onsen?

Onsen bathing is an important part of Japanese culture and daily routine. Correct manners are very important for the Japanese and it comes as no surprise that a proper onsen etiquette is well-established. First timers can be a little intimidated so we have some tips and guidelines below to ensure you enjoy this unique cultural experience.

Entrance and change rooms

The entrance to an onsen is typically marked by noren curtains (traditional Japanese fabric dividers), blue for male (男) and red for female (女). Guesthouses sometimes switch onsens, meaning an onsen that was a female one yesterday may today be a male one  remember to check the colour and/or the symbol every time when entering! Some accommodations have got limited bathing times whereas others have 24-hour bathing available.

Most onsens will have a change room for undressing and baskets are generally provided to leave your clothes in. Remove jewellery and other accessories such as watches and glasses as the mineral rich water can discolour these. In case it’s not clear yet, it is nude bathing we are talking about here but you will be provided with a small modesty towel which you can wear to cover up between the change room and the bath if you wish.

Washing and bathing in an onsen

Washing and bathing areas are separate and the water from both should not mix. Baths in Japan are for soaking and relaxing, not cleaning the body, so remember to wash yourself thoroughly before entering the bath. Most bathing areas have got small stools to sit on and wash yourself away from the actual hot spring bath. If the bathing area doesn’t have showers, use the provided washing buckets – this is the truly traditional style of onsen bathing!

You can use your modesty towel to cover up while washing but make sure not to bring the towel or any type of swimwear in the bath as they are seen as dirtying the onsen and this will not be well received by your fellow Japanese bathers.

Enter the onsen slowly to allow your body to adjust to the water temperature – hot spring baths aren’t called hot for no reason! Now relax and enjoy.

Leaving the onsen

Once you feel like you are relaxed (hopefully not traumatised) enough, stand up slowly – there are several onsen injuries reported every year due to fainting so take your time here. Some hot springs recommend not to rinse after the bath to obtain the full effect of the hot spring minerals but you should do so if you have sensitive skin. After leaving the bath, wipe off excess water and sweat prior to re-entering the change room to keep the area dry and clean. Remember to drink lots of water after your bath to keep yourself well hydrated. Slip on a yukata and chill!

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