While planning our five-month trip (in a ridiculously short period of time) I only researched a few activities for each country, assuming that the rest would take care of itself. In Japan, however, I knew I wanted to visit an onsen, or mineral hot springs.
This cheery Scandinavian fellow greets you at the entrance to the onsen. Why isn’t he Japanese? I have no idea.
The onsen tradition is revered in Japan with hundreds of springs scattered all over. Many are located in scenic areas like the Japanese Alps, and are a natural complement to skiing and other winter activities. Onsens require a bit of introduction, however, especially to Western visitors – and it’s important to understand the etiquette before partaking.
Onsens are separated by gender and are always taken without clothing of any kind. (And they’re often used as company team-building activities! Can you imagine explaining to an American HR department that you’re going naked hot-tubbing with your work colleagues?)
A row of harvested carrots on our farmstay. In the upper left you can see the onsen set high up on the hill. It was about a fifteen-minute walk from our farm straight up the wooden stairs built into the slope.
When you first enter the onsen, you remove your outdoor shoes and put on a pair of slippers. (In all of the places we’ve been thus far in Japan, you never, ever wear your outdoor shoes into a home. I love this.) You buy an entrance ticket – this one cost about $5 – from the vending machine then head to the changing area. All of your clothes and belongings are stowed in lockers, and you enter the central shower area. It’s imperative that everyone is very clean before entering the communal pools; not showering first is a major transgression.
After showering, you can choose from a variety of different pools, depending on the onsen. At this location there were three: a large, warm pool and a hot tub with serious pressure jets, both indoors, and an outdoor pool constructed of rocks that looked over the snow-covered valley. When you move from the indoor to the outdoor pool you just walk – naked as a baby – and once you get past the Western mentality of embarrassment about being completely unclothed amongst strangers, it’s really amazing. The outdoor pool was the hottest and my favorite, because it was absolutely freezing outside and as soon as you got too hot you could sit up on the edge to cool off. I could have stayed there all day.
The view from the balcony; for obvious reasons, I have no photos from inside the onsen.
A couple of interesting notes about onsens: you don’t use the large fluffy beach towels we might use at home. Instead, you can bring (or rent) a small body towel and a face towel. It is incredibly bad manners to put your face towel into the hot water; leave it resting on your head. You can also use the larger towel for modesty as you move from one pool to another, but many guests didn’t bother. Also, most onsens still prohibit any sort of tattoos. Traditionally, tattoos were only for yakuza, or gangsters, and onsens didn’t want this type of clientele. As tourism expands and foreign visitors become more and more important, it seems that the prohibition against tattoos is relaxing slightly, but only if they’re covered with a bandage or patch. Full-sleeve or other extensive tattoos (or piercings) will absolutely get you politely escorted out of an onsen, even if they already let you in.
Steam from one of Yudanaka’s onsens.
Onsens are mostly silent too, a time to sit quietly with your thoughts and enjoy the soothing water. While there were children at the onsen I visited, they were polite and respectful and not splashing around. I heard very little conversation, and that I did hear was in appropriately hushed tones.
We visited the famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani, or Hell’s Valley, and the town we stayed in – Yudanaka – is known for its onsens. Much like Glenwood Springs and Idaho Springs in Colorado, the mineral-rich waters are seen as a cure for just about any physical ailment. Yudanaka has nine special onsens, each with a different mineral composition, located along public streets and marked by numbers. The doors are kept locked and keys can only be obtained by staying at certain ryokans, or traditional inns. Visiting all nine, and collecting a stamp from each to be attached to a special souvenir cloth, is thought to bring good fortune. While out walking we often saw ryokan guests walking from onsen to onsen in their designated yukata robes and wooden slippers. Many of the inns here are well over four hundred years old, and the streets have retained a truly lovely ancient atmosphere.
Ryokan guests en route from one onsen to another.
After a week on the farm of harvesting and sorting carrots, chopping firewood and spreading rice husks in the orchard in bone-chilling temperatures, my two onsen visits were borderline miraculous. If you travel to Japan and have the opportunity to visit an onsen, go! It is a not-to-be-missed experience you won’t find anywhere else. Just get your tattoos removed first.
Yudanaka’s ancient streets.
Want to learn more about the onsen tradition? Go here!