Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Japan is famous for its Onsens. Onsen is the Japanese term for Hot springs, actually public baths built near hot springs. Geothermal activity at thousands of sites in Japan has created natural hot springs below the earth’s surface.

The Japanese simply love their baths and swear by the Onsens. Visiting onsens has been an age old tradition in the country. Hardly surprising considering Japan is a country which boasts of close to 2000 onsens. The hot spring water is said to have medicinal properties which can cure arthritis, hypertension, nerve disorders, skin problems and sometimes even chronic ailments. Apart from this, the onsen visits are said to be refreshing. Onsens in Japan are not restricted to human beings. For instance, the monkeys in Jigokudani Hell valley in Nagano prefecture are famous for their onsen fetish and are said to sit in the hot water pools for hours to stay warm.

Onsens may be either indoors or outdoors, small or large, boiling hot or lukewarm.

Sometimes Onsens are located in picturesque surroundings.

Some onsen hotels may also have private onsens in rooms so that families can enjoy the bath in privacy. 

While most onsens are located on natural springs, there is no dearth of man made onsens. Sometimes hot spring water is piped and transported to a distant resort or Onsen hotel. Sometimes the water is so hot that it needs to be cooled before it can be used for bathing.

Onsens can be identified from either of these signs. 

Onsens are generally separated into Male and Female areas. Bathing is generally in the nude , and this is often a cause of culture shock to foreigners, including me. I somehow don’t understand how nude bathing is common in a country which is highly conservative in some matters and where set rules of behaviour and modesty are defined and strictly followed. Somehow I haven’t been able to bring myself to visiting an onsen till date.

Onsen visits are not simple. A certain etiquette needs to be followed. For instance, people are required to clean themselves in the washing area before entering the public bath. Clothing and personal possessions need to be kept in the changing room area, usually in lockers. Soaps or shampoos are not allowed to be used in the bath. People can only carry a towel in the bath and usually this is placed over the head during the time in the bath. (This is said to reduce the dizziness likely to be caused due to exposure to sulphur.) After emerging from the public bath, people should clean themselves again in the washing area.

Onsens are found across Japan and there are entire towns which are called Onsen towns.
These towns have many onsens and onsen hotels and these are frequented by the locals, with families in tow. Most of the time people come to Onsen towns for overnight stay in these Onsen hotels.  It is common to see people roaming in onsen towns in their yukata with a towel in their hand.  The strong sulphuric odour in the air is the best way to identify an Onsen town. In some towns, even the drainage outlets smell of sulphur.
Sometimes the rocks near these onsens turn white due to the high sulphuric content in the water.

Strange as it may sound, most Onsen towns also look similar and as such are easy to identify. A snow covered Takayu Onsen town in Fukushima :
Some onsens are highly priced while others may be moderately priced. Onsen hotels provide overnight accommodation with meals and onsen facilities. Generally the pricing is per person and the accommodation is in Japanese style rooms. In some onsen towns, there is a system whereby a guest can visit various onsens in the town or in the same area during his period of stay in the town. Lot of people can be seen onsen-hopping because of this system. In most onsen towns, apart from the public baths, it is common to find Foot Baths. A footbath in Takayu onsen town: 
Foot Baths are known as “Ashi-yu” and are definitely a boon for weary travellers. Soaking tired feet in the foot bath for just a few minutes works wonders. Personally I love these foot baths and cannot stop myself from soaking up my feet in one. 

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