Japan is famous for its volcanic peaks, which also hint at a national treasure underground: geothermally-heated mineral spring waters. For longer than records have been kept, Japanese have been bathing in natural, hot spring-fed ‘onsen’ to benefit from their restorative and healing powers.
For travelers to Japan, a visit to an onsen is an essential cultural and wellness experience, but, like many other Japanese traditions, there are rituals and etiquette to participating.
Here’s what you need to know about onsen:
There are thousands of onsen dotting Japan’s many islands. A few remain outdoors in natural rock-lined pools where the heated waters literally spring from the volcanic earth. Other mineral hot spring sources have been channeled into man-made indoor or outdoor pools, often attached to a traditional Japanese hotel, or ryokan.
Different sources of hot springs in different Japanese onsen destinations contain different beneficial minerals and devotees distinguish various onsen therapeutic powers by their waters’ mineral composition.
Regardless of any therapeutic powers, spending time in an onsen is restorative and relaxing and fundamental to Japanese culture, which almost considers onsen to be sacred places.
1. Take it all off. But keep covered up.
Onsen are not swimming pools; it’s considered bathing, not swimming, and swimsuits are not permitted. Today, onsen are divided by gender and you are expected to go into the pool without clothing.
However, modesty is still expected. Like in a locker room at home, you are expected to always have your eyes focused elsewhere. It goes without saying that you would never take any photos.
Many people drape small towels to cover up a little on the way into the pool, and put the towel on their head to keep it handy while they are actually in the pool.
2. Keep it clean.
You do your bathing before you enter an onsen pool, and you are expected to be pristinely clean before entering; no quick rinse off!
Outside the onsen pool area are a number of showers with stools and buckets where you are expected to scrub down thoroughly, although grooming or shaving is considered impolite. Exfoliate so as much of the hot spring minerals can be absorbed into your skin. Make sure there’s no soap, shampoo, dirt or sweat on you before you take the next step into the pool.
Once you are in the onsen, you don’t submerge your head in the hot springs, or get your hair in the water.
3. Enter slowly and stay mellow.
Natural hot springs are hot! Onsen average around 110 degrees, and so bathers are advised to ease into the water to acclimate. Some are much hotter.
Onsen are not water parks or hot tub parties. Quiet socializing is accepted, but no drinking takes place in the onsen pools, and certainly no splashing, or rowdy behavior.
The ideal mood for your onsen experience is meditative, breathing deeply and slowly to maximize the restorative effects of the onsen.
Most people don’t stay in the pool for more than half an hour or so and even less the hotter the water. However, most onsen have places to relax outside of the pool itself, ranging from cooling pools to alternate with hot, to lounges, massage chairs, and even bars to have green tea, sake or Japanese beer.
Follow these tips to feel confident taking part in this ancient Japanese wellness practice.
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