Many of Japan’s mountains are active volcanoes. Even the famous Mt. Fuji had been active as a volcano until the Modern Age. Where there are active volcanoes there are also hot springs and they can be found all over the country. Since ancient times, the Japanese people have been very fond of these hot springs, which have become a part of the Japanese lifestyle.
Onsen is a term for hot spring used by the Japanese people, though the term is usually used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. They were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism drawing Japanese couples, families or company groupsÂ and foreigners alike who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to just lay back and relax. Onsen come in many shapes and forms, including outdoor and indoor baths, which may be public run by a municipality or private run often as part of a hotel in Japan or a ryokan (a bed and breakfast).
Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen, but gender separated bathing has steadily become the established custom . Mixed bathing persists at some onsen in the rural areas of Japan, but usually also provides the option of separate “women-only” baths or scheduled hours for different customers. Children may be seen in both the men’s and the women’s baths.
As with everything Japanese, bathing at an onsen requires the observation of their rules and etiquette.
1. Guests are expected to wash their bodies and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. The indoor baths usually have faucets with removable shower heads and stools to sit on, for showering and shampooing. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is considered unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs.
2. Soakers are not normally allowed to wear swimsuits in the baths. However, some modern onsen allow their guests to wear a swimming suit in their mixed baths.
3. Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a washcloth. The towel can also provide a decorum of decency when walking between the washing area and the baths. Some onsen allow one to wear the towel into the baths. While others have posted signs prohibiting this, in this case, people normally set their towels off to the side of the water when enjoying the baths.
4. Onsen are generally considered a respite from the hectic pace of life and consequently they are usually fairly quiet. There are some soakers though, that engage in quiet and friendly conversation while at an onsen. Generally, loud noise is frowned upon.
In Japan, it is said onsen have various medical effects derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. Japanese people believe that a good soak in proper onsen heals aches, pains and diseases, and can sometimes treat the illnesses, such as arthralgia, chronic skin diseases, diabetes, constipation, menstrual disorders and so on. They believe that the hot spring is effective in treating injuries as well as relieving fatigue.
If you visit a hot spring resort, you will find that the majority of the accommodation facilities offer hot spring baths. You will also find many places where you can bathe in a hot spring without staying overnight. Even some onsen attract wild monkeys who also bathe. Roten-buro, which is an open-air spa, is extremely popular, so you should give it a try when traveling in Japan. Just remember to observe etiquette given from the tips above.