Visiting an onsen—natural hot spring—is a must-do part of any stay in Japan. The waters of Japan’s famous hot springs are some of the most relaxing and healing in the world. Strip away your shyness —and your clothes—and prepare to feel warmed to the core.
Many Japanese people love baths. Relaxing in the tub at the end of the day is something people look forward to; in most Japanese homes the bath and shower are separated, which places extra important on the bathtub. The Japanese phrase “hadaka no tsukiai” (naked relationship) refers to the strengthening of interpersonal bonds while bathing together—thereby hiding nothing from one another.
Since its inception in the 7th century, bathing in onsen has become a great form of leisure for the Japanese. An onsen, however, is much more than a normal bath. Due to their many minerals, onsen waters have incredible health benefits. According to legend, onsen were discovered when people saw animals healing themselves in the waters. Samurai would often use onsen to treat their battle wounds. It’s been scientifically proven that onsen waters can aid in maintaining good health and remedying some aches, illnesses, and injuries. Ailments like high blood pressure, skin conditions, diabetes, arthritis, and more can all benefit from onsen waters.
Japan has some of the most active volcanoes in the world. It’s thanks to that activity that there are thousands of onsen scattered across the country, mostly found in the countryside. Due to their unique mineral compositions, charms, and specialties, no two onsen are the same.
You can easily find onsen on maps. They are usually marked with the kanji for hot water 湯 (yu), the hiragana ゆ, or the symbol ♨. There are many with ryokan and hotels built beside them as well.
There is a wide variety of onsen and public baths in Japan, each with their own special characteristics. Here are some of the types of baths you may encounter:
Often translated to English as "hot springs." An onsen must be warmer than 25 degrees Celsius and contain at least one of nineteen elements as designated by the official "Onsen Law"—surely only Japan would have such a law! The elements include lithium, sulfur, sodium chloride, and iron. If an onsen naturally meets those conditions with geothermally heated springs they are called tennen onsen (天然温泉), or "natural onsen." This is opposed to jinko-onsen (人工温泉), or "man-made onsen," which—as the name implies—meet the conditions artificially. Onsen are also usually classified as either volcanic or non-volcanic.
Bathe and relax while surrounded by the tranquil beauty of nature in these outdoor onsen. Can also be called noten-buro (野天風呂).
A public bath. They differ from onsen in that sento use heated tap water instead of those with special minerals. Sento are more common in major cities and often beloved by locals.
A "public bath theme park" of sorts, these often have a wide selection of facilities, such as different style baths, varying mineral compositions (often artificial), saunas, massages, restaurants, resting area, and more.
Sometimes also called yokujo (浴場). This refers to a hotel or ryokan’s large bath, which may or may not be an onsen.
A foot bath, a quick and convenient way to warm up. These can even be found on some streets and are free of charge at some onsen villages and resort towns.
A waterfall onsen where water splashes down on the bathers sitting beneath the falls to act as a sort of massage.
A cold bath, separated from the main bath at an onsen or sento.
Literally "reserved bath," these are found at high-end hotels and ryokans. Sometimes called kazoku-buro (家族風呂), or "family bath."
Pay the entrance fee. There are sometimes additional costs for towels, soap, shampoo, and so on; you may even need to pay at a ticket machine.
Enter the appropriate changing room: for men that’s through the navy-blue curtains, usually marked with 男 (otoko); and for women it’s red curtains with 女 (onna) on it.
Using a basket or locker, store all your clothing and accessories.
Enter the bathing area nude with a clean hand towel, which is provided or available from a ticket machine.
Shower stations are equipped with a stool and a bucket. Fill the bucket with water and pour it over your body (usually about ten times), starting from your feet and working your way up to your head.
Use the hand towel to thoroughly wash your body. Stay seated on the stool to prevent splashing water in the onsen or on other patrons. Rinse and wring out your hand towel when finished. At older hot springs there may not be a shower, in which case you may enter the bath after the previous step.
Slowly enter the onsen—but take care, waters are usually 40–44 degrees Celsius. Enter the water gradually, from your feet and knees working your way up to your shoulders. Any time that you feel too hot, take a break and sit on the rim of the tub—usually after 5 or 10 minutes. Repeat this a couple times but remember: bathing for more than 30 minutes total may be dangerous and cause dehydration or dizziness.
Before reentering the changing area, wipe down your body with your hand towel. Proceed, dry off, and change back into your clothes. Some onsen also have hair dryers available for you to use, so don’t catch a cold.
Japan has a plethora of amazing onsen. Any one of them is sure to be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience but those listed below are typically considered to be the best of the best. Please note that some of them refer to onsen areas and districts instead of a specific onsen. Try out as many as you can:
Atami Onsen (Shizuoka)
Nanki Shirahama Onsen (Wakayama)
Beppu Onsen (Oita)
According to The Pillow Book:
According to Hayashi Razan:
Kusatsu Onsen (Gunma)
Gero Onsen (Gifu)
Based on the Nihon Shoki:
Humans aren't the only ones who enjoy onsen—learn about the snow monkeys in Nagano that love to take baths!