Facts of Japan - Onsen

Onsen is a real term for hottest baths in Japan. But it has expanded in its meaning to relatively include all the bathing facilities around the hot baths or hot springs.

Japan is volcanically very active country. And there are many hot springs that are active around the year. In fact, there are more than 3,000 hot springs available in Japan. All these onsens were used as public bathing places in Japan. But today Onsens play such a central role in the tourism development of Japan.

Onsens are of many types. Outdoor Onsens (rotenburo or notenburo) and indoor Onsens are the major ones. They are also coming in many types and many shapes as well. These Onsens are run by private and public. They are mostly found near the countryside but many popular Onsen establishments can be found in major cities now.

Ubayu onsen in Yamagata.
Ubayu onsen in Yamagata.

These Onsens provide such a relaxation that many Japanese prefer them when they want to relax from the hectic life of the major cities. And for tourists it has become the primary place of importance in Japan.

Japanese are always in favor of ‘naked communion’ and Onsens offer them just this. Any presence of Onsen is mostly referred by the sign of kanji. It clearly means hot water. The younger children can understand it by the hiragana character.

But nature, Onsen means geothermally hot water of the springs, whereas a sento is an indoor public bath where the water is filled with hot water. There is a legal definition for the Onsen springs or bath. The water should contain at least one out of the 19 desired chemical elements. This includes Radon and the metabolic acid. The water should be 25 degree centigrade warmer.

Onsen water is supposed to possess healing powers. This naturally comes from its mineral content. Each mineral has some healing powers and according to that they are promoted. Though male and female used to bathe together in the Onsen, after western influence, there are separate Onsens created for the two groups.

Now bathing in Onsen has certain regulations. Anyone who wants to enter in Onsen must wash his or her body and rinse thoroughly before entering into the Onsen bath. One can not enter into Onsen with soap residues or dirty body.

One of the most famous and oldest onsen in Japan is the Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture).
One of the most famous and oldest onsen in Japan is the Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture).

Though swimsuits are allowed in Onsen, it actually goes against the belief that Onsen needs a bathe with a naked body. Even towels are not allowed in Onsen bath. All Onsens are usually quiet while some of them play piped music. A lesser amount of going overboard like splashing water is tolerated at many places.

Another major hindrance to Onsen bathing is Tattoos. Because Tattoos are believed to be related to or referring the criminality, people with tattoos are usually not encouraged to go into Onsen bath.

Depending upon the minerals in the hot springs, all the Onsens are promoting their Onsens based on these minerals and exhibiting their medicinal properties. Some types include the following:

Sulphur Onsen, Hydrogen Carbonate Onsen, Sodium Chloride Onsen and Iron Onsen. In fact not only these there are many other Onsens with more distinctive qualities. They are Heavy Carbon Soil Springs, Salt Springs, Mirabilite Springs, Gypsum springs, true bitter springs, Iron Springs, Acidic Springs, Alum Springs, Sulfur Springs and Radium Hot Springs. Japanese strongly believe that these Onsens are capable of healing pains, aches and diseases. They like to visit Onsens to treat illness such as chronic skin diseases, arthralgia, constipation, diabetes, and even menstrual disorders.

Finally, Ashiyu are another kind of shallow hot water springs for bathing only the feet. They are found in many streets and can be used free of cost.

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