[Updated Nov 2017] All-Encompassing Japan Onsen Travel Guide

Everyone is going to Japan for their holidays during this time of the year! The cold wintery weather is bound to give you the chills, but at least it is better than getting burned in our Little Red Dot. While you are enjoying yourself in Japan (or considering what to do while you plan your holiday), one of the things you should highly consider is visiting a Japanese Onsen.

Why should I visit a Japanese onsen?

When it comes to Onsen, Japan is the ultimate hosting site. For one thing, it is home to more than 27,000 hot springs, in totality spewing out about 2,600,000 litres of soothing-to-the-skin, mineral-rich water approximately every minute; more importantly, 47% of the water being spewed is in excess of 42 degrees Celsius. The amazing thing is that external heating sources are often not needed at the more than 3,085 hot-springs-area lodges spread out along a volcanic belt in the country.

Fun facts about Japanese Onsen

The springs, furthermore, are continuously and generously replenished by the huge amount of precipitation that annually blesses the Japanese archipelago via rain and snow seasonally. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the Japanese early on in their ancient history fashioned unique bathing practices, techniques and traditions that revolved around hot springs therapy; in fact, Onsen was slowly and methodically weaved into the rich cultural tapestry which has now become legendary to its many admirers and historians everywhere.

To a Japanese, bathing in hot springs not only cleanse the body, but also the soul

On or about the mid-eighth century, the concept of Unjitsu was imported to Japan from the mainland, in addition to many Buddhist texts. This book also delves into the virtues and wonders of bathing. At first, bathing to cleanse body and soul usually took place using the ocean, waterfalls, or cold rivers; when bathing in hot water or Onsen came along, though, the practice was eagerly embraced. This sutra delving into the virtues of hot water bathing was reported to cure 7 ailments and bestow 7 blessings.

As such, the Japanese believed that bathing (especially the hot springs variety) can clean not just the body but also the soul. Shinto, Japan’s indigenous belief, focuses on “misogi,” a water purification and ablution ritual. In those instances when grand ceremonies were held at the imperial court, members in good standing of the nobility would wake very early and make bathing an early and essential soul/body purification rite.

The common people would later recognize this as “gyouzui,” or the taking of a bath in an outside washtub. As far as the Japanese were concerned, washing off dirt and sweat also brought the benefit of refreshing/cleansing the soul.

Apparently, the culture that came to love hot springs, bathing and cleanliness may very well owe its present unique cultural and spiritual perspectives to the marriage of the Buddhist Unjitsu sutra and the Shinto belief in misogi. Today, we know it as the “soaking culture” that includes the cleansing of the soul in the act of washing off physical uncleanliness.

How the Japanese use hot springs therapy for health benefits

The words “isyuukan hitomeguri” (translation: “one-week round trip”) refer to hot springs therapeutic bathing for the sake of addressing medical conditions and promoting over-all good health. This time frame is the basic unit ideal hot springs therapy said to have been determined 400 to 500 years ago. The main impetus for hot springs bathing happens to be stimulation; accordingly, certain essential minerals and certain elements are absorbed by the body, ultimately promoting hormone secretion. The sympathetic nerves become dominant as one begins hot springs therapy, accompanied by increases in heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

In our body, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems alternate in predominance. During bathing in onsen, to compensate for the high stimulation, the parasympathetic nerves system takes over, leading to reduction in heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Eventually, a new equilibrium is brought about; this see-saw effect can be therapeutic or healing for the human body, in this instance.

Doctors of medicine first started using hot springs therapy during the Edo period lasting from 1603 to 1868. The first man to officially try this treatment was Goto Konzan (1659 to 1733), a traditional medicine master with 200 apprentices under him. Konzan was intrumental in helping to champion a medical reformation of current accepted formal medicine—especial in regards to the problems and challenges that Chinese medicine was facing. He was one of the medical experts that helped to revolutionize Japanese medicine.

Konzan came up with the radical theory of ikki ryutai (or “energy blockage”), which proposed that sickness in the human body was often the result of blatant energy flow blockage. To illustrate this principle, the character in Japanese for “energy” (ki) was essentially the same as the one used in the word “genki,” which stands for “healthy”; in fact, the word refers to the autonomic nerves in present-day medicine. Assuming that it was plausible to cure illnesses simply by unblocking these energy stop-gaps, Konzan suggested that it was beneficial to soak in natural springs that were preferably hot in order to ameliorate levels of “ki.”

This became an accepted method to stimulate sympathetic nervous systems. In other words, if people wanted to feel more energetic and restore the balance of energy within them, then they were told to soak their weary bodies in hot springs water in weekly sessions during the year or as often as was possible—for there was no indication that you could “overdo” hot water springs therapy.

Further advantages of onsen bathing – prevent diseases & the effects of aging

Society today is obsessed with the eating of vegetables, fruits and mushrooms because they contain high amounts of antioxidants that can help eliminate free radicals which are, supposedly, one of the key reasons for senescence (a.k.a. “aging”) and diseases that have been tied to poor lifestyle choices, including high blood pressure, cancer, stroke, arterial sclerosis, heart attack, obesity and diabetes.

In fact, some experts opine that 90% of diseases (including aging) are brought about by the effects of free radicals. The sources thereof include radiation, ultraviolet rays, car exhaust, pesticides, cigarettes, food additives, intense stress and pharmaceuticals. When we say that a free radical oxidizes something what we mean is that corrodes it.

Other effects of oxidation include metals rusting and unrefrigerated fish turning rancid. It just so happens that the human body consists of approximately 60,000,000,000,000 cells which, when they undergo the physiological equivalent of “corrosion,” can result in DNA getting permanently damaged, thus potentially leading to cancer.

The alternative to “oxidation” is “restoration”—basically, it produces the opposite effects on human cells, tissues and organs. Restoration, furthermore, delays the aging process, helps to repair corroded or decayed cells by re-activating them, thereby producing a rejuvenating effect that can be felt throughout the body. It’s no wonder, therefore, that hot springs in Japan have been referred to as “waters of youth.” Soaking in hot springs, in other words, restores health to corroded skin, in essence turning back the clock, often returning a youthful appearance.

In fact, the most beneficial springs are those that have recently been breached, that offer pristine water that is continuously fed by chemically unpolluted sources, and that aren’t treated with any chemical disinfectant of any kind.

Waters that have ideal restorative powers

An incredible 90,000 kilometers (i.e., 2.5 times the circumference of the earth) of blood-transporting vessels are expertly laid out throughout the human body. In a healthy person, the blood that flows through all these vessels is usually somewhat alkaline, as is the urine that we transmit out of our bodies daily. It just so happens that vegetables and fruits usually offer antioxidant benefits—unfortunately, though, many people consume less and less of these products. By the same token consumption of animal protein and processed food consumption continues to go up—most of these products are unhealthily oxidized.

Onsen has helped to keep Japanese people healthy for centuries; to this day, the Japanese simply don’t show the same health problems (at least not in the same high proportions) that are routinely seen in the developed world. This is especially true about chronic diseases. If hot springs therapy were given a bigger role by modern medicine in every country, one may argue, perhaps some of these medical problems would be better managed and not as prevalent. Controlling free radicals would be one of the many benefits to be reaped on a more wide-scale basis.

Of all the hot springs sources with healing and restorative powers, the springs that are fed by naturally occurring sources seem to have the most beneficial effects—ostensibly because such sources aren’t tainted by chemicals and, perhaps more importantly, are chock-full of essential minerals and other elements. These “natural” sources generally come from deep beneath the earth and aren’t diluted, chemically treated or heated externally.

These waters are so uniquely beneficial that a special name has been given to the water that spills over the usually stony or earthy sides of bathing pools: “gensen kakinagashi” (translation: “water that flows from the source”); this is the type of hot springs boasting of a continuously flow of naturally-occurring, deep-from-the earth water which has the healing powers now associated with onsen.

The different types of Onsen categorised by mineral composition

The Japan Onsen Association has categorized all the different types of onsen in Japan into 9 main types (the 10th type was added in 平成26, which is 2014 in western calendar). However, one must note that because of different mineral composition in each of the 3085 onsen locations in Japan, some onsen can fall into more than 1 category.

To begin with an onsen can only be called an onsen if it fits all 3 of the following conditions

  • These hot springs must be naturally produced or the result of an artificially bored hole—but must directly come from beneath the earth.
  • The Onsen water must have a temperature higher than 25 Celsius or 77 Fahrenheit degrees.
  • It must contain in significant quantities at least one of the nineteen listed minerals.

Types of Onsens

1. Basic/ simple water

漢字:単純泉
Hiragana:たんじゅんせん
English pronunciation : tanjyun-sen

“tanjyun-sen” is the most abundant type of Onsen in Japan. Even though these waters are referred to as “tanjyun” (“basic” or “simple”), this isn’t saying that the water is has nothing beneficial. It only means that the spring does not reach a minimum amount of mineral content pre-defined by the Onsen Association. The great thing about stimulating the skin using Onsen is that it’s generally too mild to do anyone (including vulnerable people like babies, the disabled and the elderly) any harm. People starting out with Onsen, though, should consider using this type of water with caution until they get the hang of things.

 

Gero Onsen 下呂温泉
Gifu Prefecture岐阜県
website

Yufuin Onsen 湯布院温泉
Ōita Prefecture大分県
website

Shusenshi Onsen 修繕寺温泉
Shizuoka Prefecture静岡県
website

2. Alkaline water / sodium bicarbonate saline spring

漢字:炭酸水素塩泉 aka 美人の湯 美肌の湯
Hiragana:たんさんすいそえんせん / びじんのゆ びはだのゆ
English pronunciation : tansansuisoen-sen

“Bijin-no-yu” (i.e., “beautiful ladies onsen”) is the term used to denote alkaline water. This type of onsen is a big hit, especially with the womenfolk, because of its reputed beautifying effects. The surface of our skin is normally slightly acidic. When in contact with this alkaline water, our skin is forced to excrete to re-balance the pH back to acidic. The excretion through our skin pores will push out and carry along the impurities(dirt) clogging our skin pores. As such, ladies who often bathe in this type of onsen has clean and small pores, making their skin smooth. Some skincare brands make alkaline soaps to make use of this same mechanism to extract impurities from face pores.

There is a unique thickness to the feel of this water—sort of what you feel when you wash your hands with mineral-rich water from a well; the water also leaves a silky smooth film on your skin when you leave this Onsen. Some of its more specific benefits include exfoliation of the skin, removing skin spots, and helping to melt sebum cutaneum.

Sometimes referred to as a “cold” spring, this Onsen can also be very refreshing. These are divided into 2 main types: bi-carbonated earth springs (full of alkaline properties) and sodium bi-carbonate springs. This type Onsen is good for contusions, cuts, muscle/joint pain, chronic skin diseases, etc.

嬉野温泉
saga Prefecture 佐賀県
website

羽根沢温泉
Yamagata Prefecture 山形県
website

別府温泉
oita Prefecture 大分県
website

3. Carbon dioxide spring

漢字:二酸化炭素泉 aka 泡の湯
Hiragana:にさんかたんそせん / あわのゆ
English pronunciation : nisankatanso-sen

With Cardon Dioxide (CO2) bubbles showing up on the surface and sticking to one’s skin, the water from this Onsen can help improve circulation, which, when it is working right, can help all parts of the body work at peak capacity. Not only does it help deliver oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to different parts of the body, but it also (as the blood crawls back to the heart via the veins) helps remove waste from the body, in essence detoxifying it. Doctors in Japan vouch for this Onsen’s healing effects, which is why carbonated water is used in hospitals. Then again, naturally carbonated Onsen water is rather rare and hard to find. This Onsen is good for muscle/joint pain, contusions, high blood pressure, cuts, hardening of the arteries, sensitivity to cold, paralysis, infertility, menopausal disorders, etc.

Because CO2 is escape from the spring at 42 degrees Celsius, most of these springs are kept in temperature of 39 degrees. Also, soon after the spring water leaves its source, CO2 starts escaping into the air. Without the CO2, the srping water loses its “power”. Thus, the spring water is most effective when it is “fresh” out from the spring source.

長湯温泉
Ōita Prefecture 大分県
website

大塩温泉 (福島県)
Fukushima Prefecture 福島県
website

湯屋温泉
Gifu Prefecture 岐阜県
website

4. Ferruginous (Iron) spring (“Water of Iron”, “red water”)

漢字:含鉄泉 aka 婦人の湯 aka 赤湯
Hiragana:がんてつせん / ふじんのゆ / あかゆ
English pronunciation : gantetsu-sen

Water that is rich in iron is called “gantetsu-sen.” As the water spews from its natural source it is clear in color but, as it combines with oxygen, it turns into a brownish/red color due to oxidation of iron, giving rise to the name “red water”; unfortunately, as the water darkens, it also gradually loses its effectiveness. Because you can absorb the iron from the water, this Onsen is good for users with menstruation disorders, who are menopausal or who are anemic; it’s also excellent for people with circulatory issues due to the water’s warmth. Popular with many women (who are often deficient in iron), this Onsen is appropriately called Fujin-no-yu (“Women’s Water); this water is also popular as a beverage.

You can find 2 different types of ferruginous springs: the ones that contain melanterite and the ones that contain iron carbonate.

 

有馬温泉
kobe Prefecture 神戸県
website

天狗温泉
nagano Prefecture 長野県
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赤湯温泉
Yamagata Prefecture 山形県
website

5. Radioactive Water

漢字:放射能泉 aka 万病の湯
Hiragana:ほうしゃのうせん / まんびょうのゆ
English pronunciation : housyanou-sen

These types of springs, unfortunately, are controversial, experimental and potentially dangerous. As of today, there is no such a thing as an absolutely-safe level of radiation exposure. Supposedly, these springs, sometimes referred to as radon or radium springs, only expose users to small amounts of radiation which, in theory, leave your body after bathing. Some people believe that these springs may have some therapeutic value but this has yet to be proven through scientific means.

三朝温泉
Misasa Prefecture 鳥取県
website

増富温泉
Yamanashi Prefecture 山梨県
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関金温泉
Misasa Prefecture 鳥取県
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6. Sulphate spring

漢字:硫酸塩泉 aka 傷の湯
Hiragana:りゅうさんえんせん / きずのゆ
English pronunciation : ryuusanen-sen

There are 3 types of Sulphate springs: Sodium Sulphate (芒硝泉), Calcium Sulphate (石膏泉) and Magnesium Sulphate (正苦味泉) springs. All three are good for hardening arteries and for anyone that needs to relax or calm down. Each, however, has distinctive healing qualities: Calcium Sulphate is good for bruises, rheumatism, burns, cuts, etc.; Sodium Sulphate helps with hardening arteries, high blood pressure, external wounds, etc.; and Magnesium Sulphate provides all the benefits of both Calcium Sulphate and Sodium Sulphate springs. The onsen water is usually clear with no color.

四万温泉
Gunma Prefecture 群馬県
website

霧積温泉
Gunma Prefecture 群馬県
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かのせ温泉
niigata Prefecture 新潟県
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7. Acidic waters

漢字:酸性泉
Hiragana:さんせいせん
English pronunciation : sansei-sen

This water is a favorite for treatment purposes. Its healing powers can be used against athlete’s foot, scars, and chronic skin diseases. This water is also ideal for making skin healthier and more appealing—an effect brought about by the acid helping to remove the upper thin layer of aging, damaged skin.

A very rare type of water found for the most part only in Japan, it is naturally created by the mixing of volcanic gases and natural spring water. Since this water induces a strong type of stimulation, it has been known to irritate some people’s skin. This type of Onsen isn’t recommended for sick persons, the elderly or those who have especially sensitive skin.

Warning: If using these types of springs, be ready to pour cool, fresh water on yourself after a bath in order to prevent hyperthermia (an increase in body temperature), a possible result of hot water over-exposure. The water also rinse away the acidity, which should not be kept on the skin for too long.

草津温泉
Gunma Prefecture 群馬県
website

玉川温泉
Akita Prefecture 秋田県
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蔵王温泉
Yamagata Prefecture 山形県
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8. Sulphur spring

漢字:硫黄泉
Hiragana:いおうせん
English pronunciation : iou-sen

Two things that stand out about this type of water are its distinctive “rotten eggs” smell and its milky white appearance (a result of mixing with air). Some users may dislike this Onsen because of its strong smell due to Sulphur, but the trade-off for better health remains appealing. Another benefit involves the gas that this Onsen gives off—it can help soothe one’s throat and help get over chronic bronchitis. Other health effects include dilation of blood vessels, CVD prevention (including arteriosclerosis) and some skin diseases; these waters can also beneficial to those suffering from drug addiction—made possible by reported detoxification qualities.

The water milky appearance is because of 湯の花 which refers to the chemical reaction of oxidation causing white crystal deposits to form in the water. Despite their small size, the crystals are in various amazing shapes.

万座温泉
Gunma Prefecture 群馬県
website

高湯温泉
Fukushima Prefecture 福島県
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月岡温泉
niigata Prefecture 新潟県
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9. Chloride spring

漢字:塩化物泉 aka 熱いの湯
Hiragana:えんかぶつせん / あつのゆ
English pronunciation : enkabutsu-sen

These types of Onsen are ideally-suited for the ill and the elderly. Containing salt, these springs have many of the same properties as sea water. During bathing, the salt accumulated on your skin keeps body heat in and prevents sweat evaporation, both of which help keep you warm. This is why this onsen is also called “atsui-no-yu”, meaning “hot” type of onsen. This Onsen is good for contusions, sensitivity to colds, sprains, muscle/joint pain, infertility, chronic women’s diseases, etc.

別府観海寺温泉
iota Prefecture 大分県
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指宿温泉
Kagoshima Prefecture鹿児島
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松之山温泉
Niigata Prefecture越後県
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Onsen types specifically for skin beauty

A. To achieve cleansing and a smooth, supple, silky-feeling skin visit Sodium Bicarbonate Saline Spring / Alkaline Water Springs. These Onsens are ideal for users with skin roughness, dryness, dullness and hardening/thickening.

  • Sodium Bicarbonate Saline Spring locations: Ubako, Gora, Sengokuhara & Ninotaira
  • Alkaline Water Springs locations: Tonosawa, Yumoto, Ashinoko (Lake Ashi) and Kowakudani

B. To find moisturizing waters that also act as toners, try Sulfate Springs. These Onsen are recommended for users with skin roughness, dryness, fatigue and wrinkles.

  • Sulphate Spring Locations: Ninotaira, Yumoto, Miyagino, Gora, Ubako, Takogawa and Sengokuhara

C. For those seeking moisturizing and heat retaining water, try Chloride Springs. The high levels of salt in these springs/baths help to promote heat retention and moisture. The ideal users have skin that is rough, dry, cold (which could be due to poor circulation) and wrinkle-ridden.

  • Chloride Spring Locations: Miyanoshita, Yumoto, Sengokuhara, Gora, Sokokura & Takogawa

D. For those seeking clear skin and detoxification, try Sulfur Springs. These Onsens are ideal for those suffering from skin dullness, blemishes, or unhealthy/pale appearance.

  • Sulphur Spring locations include Yunohanazawa, Ubako and Ashinoyu.

E. For those seeking a skin tightening effect, try Acidic Waters springs. These baths can indeed help tighten skin and the mucous membranes (having an astringent effect). These are ideal for those users with weakened, sagging or fatigued skin.

  • Onsen locations: Sengokuhara and Gora.

Onsen types specifically for weight loss

A. Detoxification

One type of Onsen that may help in this regard are Sulfur Springs, especially for users experiencing poisoned-body excessive dead skin cells and constipation.

  • Sulfur Springs locations: Yunohanazawa, Ashinoyu, and Ubako

B. Calorie Burning

The hot springs recommended for this purpose are the “Chloride” ones; these can help induce long-lasting energy/calorie burning effects. The body can burn up calories just by using up energy adapting from the coolness of the body before entering the water to the heat absorbed while in the water. To maximize this energy-consuming process, dip into the water several times, rather than dipping once for a long time.

  • Chloride Springs Locations: Miyanoshita, Yumoto, Sengokuhara, Gora, Sokokura and Takogawa

What to do to take full advantage of onsen bathing

Institutions in Japan that support the existence or manage Onsen resorts specifically with the intention of promoting good health are increasing in number, stature and influence in the country. These places have on staff people that specialize in or are experts at exercise physiology and Onsen bathing science. Visitors and locals, regulars and beginners, and users and reporters can all ask questions, thereby increasing the over-all base knowledge within the population in regards to Onsen. The point is that taking full advantage of something as magnificent and well-diversified and unique as Onsen must begin with properly educating the public about all the aspects of hot natural springs bathing.

Programs are offered for stress and fatigue reduction that last between 30 minutes and 60 minutes; other sessions may be used for shoulders issues and a stiff lower back. To see if the Onsen resort you will be attending is reputable check out any reviews you can find online, consult with experts and determine if the facility is recognized and/or approved by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Drinking spring water – temperature considerations

It’s believed that drinking natural spring water can be very beneficial, especially if you drink it on a long-term basis. Supposedly, the practice can relieve, prevent or help cure liver disease, gastrointestinal disorders and constipation. In general, the hot version of this beverage can reduce gastric hyperactivity and stress; the cold variety, on the other hand, relieves constipation, invigorates your stomach and helps to reduce stomach acid.

If you do decide to take advantage of this option, obtain your water from licensed locations offering water that hasn’t been treated with chemicals, that is wholesome and clean from any impurities that may be harmful to you

Inhaling onsen steam

Some onsens (though not numerous in number) offer the opportunity to deliberately and methodically inhale steam from hot spring sources. At those sites participants may inhale gas, steam or spring water mist directly from active, natural hot springs. The types of hot springs best suited for this include sodium bicarbonate and chloride springs

Different types of bathing methods

There are a rich variety of different bathing methods being used in the many Onsen resorts throughout Japan. These are some of the most popular ones.

Utase-yu or “waterfall baths” for lower back and shoulder pain

These baths usually involve hot water falling from high locations, thus relieving pain and discomfort through the healing combination of warmth and pressure/soft impact. You may have to find the position and angle that is just right in order to benefit most from this type of Onsen. A use of about 15 minutes may be enough for beneficial purposes. Caution: spending too much time or being exposed to water that is too strong may have counter-productive effects.

Mushi-yu or “steam bath” for out-of-this-world relaxation

This bath warms you with skin-penetrating steam, though you won’t experience any hydrostatic pressure distractions. There are several different types of Mushi-yu, including those emanating from high-temp natural hot springs and special designations that concentrate on different parts of the body. Caution: People with lung or heart problems need to be especially mindful of the high steam temperatures; after limited-exposure to these baths, make sure that you hydrate your body appropriately.

Jizoku-yu or “long baths”

These baths offer a soothing long-term soaking (up to 3 hours, sometimes longer) in 34 degrees to 37 degrees Celsius water. Since this water is only mildly warm, it doesn’t stimulate your body or affect the parasympathetic nervous system significantly; accordingly, it’s less burdensome on your body and perfect for, among other things, help you relax.

Suna-yu or “sand bath”

This very unique steam bath involves users resting comfortably inside sand warmed up by a chloride hot springs gushing in along coastal regions. The warm temperature and weight of the warmed-up wet sand help improve blood pressure and relax tired and abused muscles. The warming effects, surprising, linger even after bathing. Fifteen minute treatments can be sufficient. Women are especially thrilled by these baths because of their beautifying and weight loss effects.

Awase-yu or a “series” of baths

This is a wonderful opportunity for users to experience different types of Onsen within a short period of time. The idea is to combine baths that stimulate with those that relax; alternating such has been shown to help persons with atopic dermatitis, skin ailments, athlete’s foot, trichophytosis, etc. This strategy may, for example, the use of acidic hot springs for stimulation, followed by sulphate or basic/simple hot springs for relaxation.

Deiyoku or mud baths

These baths involve being submerged in mud that contains many of the minerals and other beneficial elements commonly found in natural hot springs. Because the mud isn’t as warm as the hot springs, you can remain submerged therein for longer periods of time, thus making it possible to absorb more of the beneficial natural substances. Among other benefits, beautiful skin can be achieved

Etiquette as a visitor enjoying Japanese onsen

Many things about Onsen are unfamiliar to both people from the West as well as to Asians countries (other than Japan). There are, for example, specific etiquette rules, as well as practices (like women and men bathing at the same time in the same hot springs facilities) that people outside of Japan may find uncomfortable or unusual. There is also the fact that the water in many of Japan’s hot springs are much hotter than that found in Jacuzzis. Rather than not engaging in Onsen because of these potential obstacles, visitors are encouraged, instead, to simply learn and adapt to these rules of etiquette and special policies.

Before entering an onsen

  • Drink enough water because the heat of the hot spring will cause you to perspire and get dehydrated easily. Ionic drinks are recommended, because your body loses salt while perspiring.
  • To keep the onsen pool of water clean, it is a compulsory practice in Japan to wash your body and hair from dirt and cosmetics before entering the onsen water. There is always an area dedicated to scrubbing and showering next to the onsen pool.
  • Depending on the type of onsen water, some may be corrosive to jewelries. Accessories should be removed.
  • Blood is concentrated around the digestive organs after meals. Going into the onsen soon after meals will cause blood to flow towards the muscles, resulting in indigestion and discomfort. Wait for around 1 hour after meals before entering onsen.
  • Because of the temperature difference between the inside and the outside of the onsen pool, people with fever should avoid using the onsen.
  • People with heart disease or blood pressure illnesses should not use an onsen that is higher than 42 degrees Celsius, because the use of onsen will increases rate of blood flow rapidly.
  • Entering very hot water without proper preparation can be a dangerous burden on the heart. To start, scoop some of the hot water from the springs using an Oke (“scoop”) and pour the water (“Kakeyu”) over your feet several times. Once that is done, pour hot water on your arms, back, shoulders and the upper parts of the body. After your body has gradually warmed up, enter the pool slowly.
  • Be careful since areas near the water will be slippery.

During usage of an onsen

  • No phototaking
  • Drinking of sake is not recommended because of the following
    1. Over-drinking and dozing off in onsen can result in over-submersion and dehydration. There have even been cases of drowning.
    2. Giddiness from drinking can result in slipping and falling near pool area
    3. Drinking of alcohol increases chances of dehydration
  • Follow the steps to decend into the onsen pool instead of diving into the water. Onsen pools should be treated like a bath place instead of a swimming pool, for the comfort and ambience for other visitors.
  • Towels carry fiber and germs and it is mannerly to avoid letting the towel touch the onsen water. If your towel accidentally dipped into the onsen water, wring out the water away from the pool.

After using the onsen

  • Except for “Acidic Spring Water”, which you must rinse off after leaving the onsen, you are recommended to only dry yourself with the towel and leave the onsen mineral deposits on your skin without rinsing when leaving the onsen pool.
  • Many onsen facilities have areas where you can participate in post-bath activities, including possibly taking a nap. Resting for at least 30 minutes is recommended.

Onsen frequently asked questions

  1. Can I use an onsen when I am pregnant?
    You are recommended to only use a mild onsen, i.e., Basic/Simple Water (refer to Types of Onsen in the above section)
  2. Is there a limit to the duration I should bathe?
    Don’t go by how many times you use hot springs or how long you soak—in fact, over-soaking can over-burden your body. Soaking once for long periods, therefore, should be replaced with bathing a limited number of times per day.

Who should avoid using an onsen

In general, anyone suffering from the following ailments should either avoid or only use onsen facilities under the advice/supervision of a health care expert (preferably someone familiar with onsen bathing sciences):

  • Colds, fever and other acute ailments
  • Advanced rheumatoid arthritis
  • Cancer, leukemia, sarcoma
  • Diabetes
  • Acute communicable diseases
  • High blood pressure and arteriosclerosis
  • Kidney disease & heart trouble
  • Recent or past sufferers of cerebral hemorrhages or gastro-duodenal ulceration
  • Large circulatory vessel aneurysm
  • Early-stage pregnancy

Additionally, the following people should avoid Sulphur hot springs:

  • Persons with very dry skin, the elderly, and people with highly sensitive skin (e.g., anyone with photo-dermatosis)

Users with the following conditions should avoid drinking spring water from these designated springs types:

  • Avoid simple/basic carbon dioxide springs and Sulphur springs if you have diarrhea
  • Avoid sodium bi-carbonate springs, chloride springs and sodium sulphate springs if you suffer from edema, high blood pressure or kidney disease.
  • Avoid iodine containing springs if you suffer from hyperthyroidism.

Interesting facts about onsen

  • Jigokudani Yaen Koen or “the National Snow Monkeys’ Park”: this is the official home of the well-renown “snow monkeys.” Close to 200 Macaque monkeys reside in an area that is mostly harsh because of the snow-covered ground for at least 1/3 of the year and the unfriendly cliffs all around. One thing, though, that these monkeys and the other animals that call this area “home” have in common are the many natural hot springs that can be found here. Incredibly, the monkeys have enjoyed taking hot baths in these natural pools in the same way humans use them elsewhere.
  • Hot springs buildings in open air resorts are called “kan.”
  • The Suimeikan Onsen in Okuhidaonsengou is one of the largest open to the air hot springs facilities; it can accommodate about 250 people at one time.
  • Upon entering most Onsens you will pay an admission fee which can differ from place to place—one Onsen, for example, charges 800 yen or about $9 and forty cents.
  • Don’t forget to either bring or rent a wrapping towel; failure to do so means you’ll have to expose yourself entirely. Unfortunately, nudity is required. No, you may not use a bathing suit or keep your underwear on.
  • For the most part hot springs facilities are not used for dating purposes or to meet your future mate; in fact, most of the couples attending here either married or already dating. It’s safe to say, as a matter of fact, that the use of an Onsen is best suited for couples.
  • Nudity in public may be one of the most stressful aspects of Onsen for many foreigners and people trying an Onsen for the first time. The idea behind Onsen, though, is to de-stress. In this regard, Onsen may have an additional health benefit not usually mentioned: learning to overcome the silly psychological hang-ups that some people still entertain about being seen naked or seeing other people naked. It would benefit you, if you suffer from this unhealthy ailment, to get over this impediment. Onsen, it turns out, can be liberating for the sexually repressed and anatomically dysfunctional.

Onsens near big cities

Although many hot springs resorts are indeed found in the country, away from the big cities, you can find these baths near large cities like Tokyo, including Ryokan Onsen and Shima Onsen, a relatively short distance away from the city.

2 days & 1 night short trips

If visiting the Tokyo area, 2 day/1 night trips to resorts like Ryokan are popular. Another Onsen recommended by people who work at or run resorts and hotels is Hakone. Another Onsen near Tokyo is Shima—both Shima and Hakone are merely 3 hours away from Tokyo.

Near some of these hot springs resorts (like Shima), you will find many wonderful sights, including Smart Ball river and Shima Blue. A rich variety of endemic animals may be found, including native Japanese monkeys and serows, hawks, birds and butterflies. Nearby are natural geologic beauties like the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and Okushima Lake.

The Shima Onsen is an ideal site for illustrating how intimately Japanese history and culture are connected to Onsen baths. The name “Shima” for example springs from a fable about an onsen that can heal 40,000 (“Shima”) ailments or diseases. Said Onsen, in fact, has a reputation for helping to heal neuralgia, gastrointestinal disease, and rheumatism.

It should be noted that some Onsen resorts don’t accept visitors with tattoos (partly because members of the Yakusa, Japan’s version of a “Mafia”). Some resorts, however, like the Shima Onsen, do allow people with tattoos to visit by providing private Onsen facilities, including separate rooms with “open-air” hot baths.

List of hot springs/baths in Tokyo’s suburbs

  • Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa
  • Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma
  • Kinugawa Onsen in Tochigi
  • Ikaho Onsen in Gunma
  • Shirahone Onsen in Nagano
  • Manza Onsen in Gunma
  • Nozawa Onsen in Nagano
  • Nasu Onsen in Tochigi
  • Yugawara Onsen in Kanagawa
  • Shima Onsen in Gunma: Shima Onsen is highly recommended since it is open year round, offering great scenery during each season. Amazingly, it generally hasn’t yet been over-run by tourists and remains a favorite for Japanese nationals.

To sum it up

After reading this, you’d have had a better sense of consideration factors when selecting what kind of onsens you should visit, and how they would be beneficial to you and your family. All in all, make sure you take the chance to relax, enjoy, and be healed naturally in all holistic sense. Happy travels!