Japanese Onsen (Hot Springs)

October 22nd, 2012By Category: Culture, Travel

Japanese onsen (温泉) are a must try experience in Japan and are pretty much everywhere due to all the volcanic activity.

There are thousands of onsen spread across the country. Onsen can range from everyday bath-houses to mountain retreats and onsen towns that specialise in everything onsen. The baths themselves pretty much come in many different sizes and shapes. Some of the most common onsen include:

  • rotenburo (露天風呂) outdoor baths
  • kawa-no-yu (川の湯) river baths
  • sunaburo (砂風呂) sand baths
  • ashiyu (足湯) foot baths
  • konyoku (混浴) mixed baths

Onsen are usually recognised by the use of the kanji (湯) “yu” which means hot water. You also sometimes see the hiragana character (ゆ) “yu” used as well.

Traditionally onsen were located outdoors and by definition must use naturally hot water from geothermal heated springs. The water is believed to have special healing powers due to the mineral content. Different onsen throughout Japan are famous for their different waters and mineral compositions that have unique healing properties. The Japanese believe that a good soak in an onsen heals aches and pains and helps prevent diseases. If you have an injury or condition then you can bet there is an onsen out there that is made for you. The sulphur and magnesium minerals found in Japan’s hot springs is great for the skin and conditions, and the heat provided by them is great for inflammation and pain. They can also help boost the immune system and help fight off infections.

Onsen Ettiquete

Onsen bathing in Japan is an important part of the culture and conforms to fairly strict rules of etiquette. The following is a guide to help you when visiting a Japanese onsen.

  1. Take off all your clothes in the changing room and place your clothes in the basket provided before entering the washing area.
  2. Most onsen don’t allow swim suits but you can use the small hand towel (usually provided) to cover up when outside of the bath. The towel must be kept out of the bath water.
  3. Wash and rinse before entering the bath, which is used purely for soaking purposes. You can wash in the special washing area provided with taps, wooden buckets, stools, soap and shampoo.
  4. Move a stool up to a set of taps and fill the wooden bucket with water. Wash and rinse thoroughly. Most provide removable shower heads for rinsing.
  5. Enter the bath water very slowly with the minimum of disturbance.
  6. Many onsen in Japan prohibit bathers with tattoos, which are traditionally associated with Yakuza gangs.
  7. After finishing your soak in the hot onsen, rinse again in the washing area and dry as much as you can with the hand towel.

Places to check-out

Some of the most popular onsen towns and resorts in Japan are:

  • Beppu – Considered the capital of hot springs in Japan with 8 different hot spring areas.
  • Dogo Onsen – Located in Matsuyama City in Shikoku, they are the oldest hot springs in Japan.
  • Gero Onsen – A famous onsen town in Gifu that is a popular tourist destination and compact enough to explore on foot.
  • Naruko Onsen – Tohoku’s most popular onsen that is famous for its medicinal waters.
  • Noboribetsu Onsen – A spa resort in Hokkaido with 11 different kinds of hot spring water.
  • Yufuin – A trendy hot spring town located close to Beppu in Kyushu, which is popular with tourists.
  • Zao Onsen – A famous onsen town in Tohoku with magnificent thermal waters.

Gero Onsen

Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture

Prices usually vary and can range anywhere from 200 yen to 2000 yen. ANA is currently running a campaign for tourist to Japan, where you can visit anywhere in Japan for only 10,500 yen. The time is perfect to start your onsen hopping adventure today.

Author of this article

John Asano

John Asano is a blogger and travel writer living in Gifu, Japan. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, he writes about must-see sights and attractions at Japan Travel Advice, as well as about Japanese travel and culture on his blog, Japan Australia.

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  • leslie nguyen says:

    Oh I am in awe of the variety of baths available!! Thanks for posting the procedures and popular locations as well!


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