Grin and Bare It at the Onsen

Grin and Bare It at the Onsen

Shopping, sushi and sights is the usual itinerary for visitors to Japan. But take a cue from the locals and chill in the heat of a hot spring bath.

Traditional outdoor onsen  (©Wakayama Prefecture/©JNTO)

There are at least 3,000 hot spring resorts in Japan and countless other onsen (Japanese hot springs) including foot baths.  And it is not uncommon for Japanese to travel to different parts of Japan for an onsen tour to enjoy the different types of hot spring waters that can range from temperature to mineral content, to even colour.

There’s nothing like a hot onsen soak, which is widely believed to enhance the body’s healing process.

Most hot spring baths are public, so you must be ready to grin and bear it, as you bare it. But before you scratch the thought of a Japanese onsen visit on your next trip to Japan, take note that there are also private hot spring baths that can be booked.

The Suigetsu hot springs bath that can be rented for private use at a Japanese inn with onset (Photo courtesy of: Aburaya-Tousen, Yudanaka, Nagano)

Within Tokyo, and that means central Tokyo with all its skyscrapers, there are hideaway onsens. Near Koishikawa Koraku-en garden and within Tokyo Dome City amid the maze of shopping, restaurants and roller coaster rides, is a spot of that’s the total opposite – La Qua. Despite its name, the spa offers Japanese tradition, from its architecture – including a small Zen garden – to the bubbling hot springs water drawn from 1,700 meters underground from the Koishikawa Hot Springs. The entrance fee of some 2,600 Yen (extra 324 Yen on public holidays) includes rental of a gown and towel (a very important item for any onsen visit).

The Yumeminoyu public bath, one of a pair of hot spring baths with mountain views in Yudanaka village in Nagano (photo courtesy of Aburaya Tousen Inn)

Traditional onsens usually feature an open-air bath where users get to literally soak in the atmosphere by enjoying the hot springs surrounded by beautiful scenery. Most modern public versions, however, are indoors with the better ones offering a view.

To experience what the locals do when they go on an onsen tour, pay a visit to Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari that’s situated in the Obaida district near Tokyo Bay. This onsen prides itself on its ‘theme park’ offering with one part being a recreation of a Shitamachi (downtown) in Edo (old Tokyo). Choose from 14 varieties of baths, from indoor public baths to small private rooms with bath, that all draw on natural hot spring waters some 1,400 meters underground. There’s also the foot bath and, although not quite in the onsen category, the salt bath, where guests get to lie in a bed of warm, mineral rich Himalayan Rock Salt.

Ooedo Onsen Monogatari is perfect for onsen beginners. After soaking, return to the courtyard and enjoy a wide range of additional features, such as a tatami relaxation room and a variety of massage services. There’s even accommodation should you want to stay overnight.

Unlike most other onsen, Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari allows children who are more likely to enjoy the food, games and ancient streets which visitors can explore while dressed down in a yukata (casual kimono) that’s included in the entrance fee of 2,480 Yen. Pay for the extras with the wrist-band pass which also indicates your assigned locker for clothes and other items (except shoes, which are left outside).

Yukata-clad visitors stroll the onsen-lined street of Nagano's Shibu Onsen (©Nagano Prefecture/©JNTO)

At Japanese onsen towns, it is not unusual to see people wandering the streets in a yukata. It is all part of the experience that includes going from one onsen to another, and slipping out of your robes to share a tub with complete strangers. If that thought makes you blush, here’s where the all-important towel comes in.

Important Towel at OnsenThe towel is used to cover up in front, as the user politely walks from changing room to the bathing area – usually marked by a little stool, bucket and scoop, and perhaps a shower head. Start with a warm wash, then use the towel to cover up while navigating to the hot springs bath.

While stepping into the hot bath, slowly raise the towel as the body parts submerge and get hidden in the water! Place the towel outside the bath or folded on your head. If the towel gets wet, do not wring it into the clean bath water. Another no-no is rinsing the towel in the bath, as the hot springs are part of a cleansing and relaxation ritual.

The very traditional baths are truly for common use by both sexes. But most these days offer men only, and women only, public baths. Each is clearly coloured and marked, so there’s less stress over baring it all since everyone in the room would be similarly endowed. And since most are there to relax, chances are the other users would have their eyes closed.

The only stress would be to stay alert on which bath to enter, as the rooms may be switched on different days, and if you have a tattoo. Since triads in Asia, including Japan, use tattoos to literally mark members, people who’ve been inked are not allowed into onsens. If the tattoo is small, use skin-coloured plaster to cover up.

As hot springs depend on a geothermal source, most Japanese onsen towns are in regions close to mountains or volcanic activity. Among the popular destinations are Hakone which is close to Tokyo and with views of the famous Mt Fuji; Atami which is by the coast so there’s also abundant fresh seafood to relish after relaxing; and Beppu which is famous for its ‘Hell tour’ due to the fiery landscape.

Another location to add to the travel list is northern Nagano. The site for the 1998 winter Olympics is home to both ski and onsen resorts.

Snow Monkey at Jigokudani Monkey Park (photo by K.Khoo)

The hot springs in the area are much loved by the wild Japanese macaque found mostly at the Jigokudani Monkey Park. For humans, take your pick of hot spring resorts in and around the area, including some just outside the monkey park.

A short distance from the park is Shibu Onsen, which is noted for its string of public bath houses. These line the street and cater to local residents and visitors staying in the town’s various hotels and guest houses (ryokan). Visitors dropping by can pay a small fee to use some of the baths or opt for the free public foot baths.

Room with traditional open-air onsen (photo: courtesy of Aburaya-Tousen)

Nearby is Yudanaka, which also offers a string of onsens as well as luxurious resorts. Some are small traditional guest houses, while others offer a nice blend of tradition with modernity, such as Aburaya-Tousen, a small hotel where guests can enjoy a natural hot spring bath in the privacy of their own room.

Outside of Japan, there are hot spring spas aplenty in China, from Beijing to the central Chinese region of Henan, where many significant mountain ranges lie.

Sulphur baths can also be found in Europe such as Finland, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech republic, Germany and Italy. There’s even one in Great Britain, situated where else than in the city of Bath.

New Zealand with its mighty mountains, fjords and geysers is another hot destination.

Rotorua's  shooting geysers and natural hot springs fueled by the area’s geothermal activity. (Photo: Chris McLennan)

Rotorua in the North Island of New Zealand is known for its bubbling mud pools, shooting geysers and natural hot springs fueled by the area’s geothermal activity. One of its major tourist attractions, the Pohutu geyser, erupts many times daily. It is also the heartland of Maori culture.

Terume Hot Spring Resort in Rotorua offers the choice of one outdoor public mineral pool, and two indoor family mineral pools. The mineral water comes from a source located 160 meters underground. Alkaline substances and various minerals are also drawn up from this source. Research has shown that such substances and minerals are beneficial to health – especially effective for temporary relief of arthritis, dermatitis and musculoskeletal pain.

Known for its genuine free flowing rotemburo (outdoor bath), which are identical to the traditional Japanese onsen, Terume Hot Spring resort has adapted Japan’s onsen rules – so no swimsuits in the facility, only birthday suits. Full information on the house rules and etiquette will be provided on arrival at the resort, with a copy available in each room.

In order to benefit from the minerals in the water that your body has soaked up, it is recommended not to shower off after a hot spring session but to just wipe your body dry. All quality hot spring baths use only geothermal sourced water and not hot water, and the water is never recycled.

Now get ready and pack your towel.

PS: I wanna go to Japan, so desperately!! 😦

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