Culture

What is an Onsen? After Reading This, You’ll Want to Try One!

Every country has its own special places. Some have super high mountains that adventurers love to climb, others have incredible restaurants with food that you just gotta’ eat, and Japan has the onsen which is a MUST for anyone who travels there!

What exactly is an onsen?

Well perhaps if you take a look at the kanji used to write the word, it will give it away: 温泉

Still not sure what it is? Let’s look at each kanji individually.  is the kanji for “warmth” and  is the kanji for “fountain.” Figure it out yet?

That’s right ladies and gentleman! Onsen are Japan’s famous hot springs! It’s not only the hot springs though, as the word onsen is used in general to describe the accompanying inn and baths that are typically found along with the natural hot springs.温泉 (scientre, 2011)

How many of these hot springs resorts do you think there are in Japan? There are over 2,500 of them!

The reason that Japan has a lot of hot springs is due to the fact that the country has over 100 active volcanoes!

This is also one of the reasons why Japanese people usually take a bath every day. I know what you’re thinking, “Come on Nick, we all bathe every day. ” But here’s what I’ve heard:

Historically speaking, there was a lot of ash and soot in Japan’s air (because of the volcanoes) and so it was normal for them to wash it all off each day. Contrast that with Western’s civilization’s history where people normally only took a bath once a month or so.

Of course we all clean up nicely now, but in Japan it is normal to wash completely off in a brief shower, and then soak in a nice bath for 30 minutes or so. And onsen are like a huge, natural bath that can be enjoyed by all!

Since there’s so many of them, it should be pretty easy to find one. Although they are less common in the large cities of course, but you can still find them there too.

If you’re looking on a map, you will normally see one of these symbols ♨ to mark it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’ll see the kanji  (yu) which means “hot water” or even just the hiragana ゆ (yu) for young kids who only know how to pronounce it and not read the kanji.

The Rules of the Onsen

Bath in kusatsu

Hey, you didn’t think that it was just a free-for-all did you?

Some of the rules that you have to abide by when going to an onsen are:

  1. Wash and clean off your body before entering.
  2. Men and women use separate onsen (usually).
  3. No clothing allowed, you gotta be naked!
  4. About half of onsen don’t allow people with tattoos to enter.

Why can’t people with tattoos use most of the onsen in Japan? It’s because in the Japanese culture, pretty much the only people who get tattoos are in the Yakuza!

So you know, they don’t want all of their normal customers to be scared away. Although it’s not very likely that any non-Japanese person with tattoos is in the Yakuza, so more onsen are allowing people with them in these days.

Also, men and women don’t always use separate onsen. At some of them, it’s a shared hot spring between both sexes. Traditionally men and women always used them same onsen at the same time, but they started implementing separate ones for men and women when they started adopting a lot of Western practices.

Either way, you’re going to be in the nude! You get a little towel to help dry off and such, but don’t let it get into the onsen. You share it with other people after all, try and keep it clean 😉

The Benefits of the Onsen

Besides getting the chance to relax and enjoy the company of friends, there are also some health benefits as well. You might not have realized it, but it’s due to the fact that a lot of the hot springs are loaded with different kinds of minerals from the depths of the earth.

Some of these minerals are ones like sulphur, sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate, and iron.

And some Japanese people believe that regularly soaking in an onsen can help to heal common things like aches and pains, and some more advanced stuff such as skin diseases and diabetes.

Heck, I don’t know if that’s true, but it sure sounds good to me! Sign me up!

Guess What? Monkeys Like them too!

Can Japan get any better? I introduce to you the Snow Moneys!

They’re native to Japan and tend to live in areas that are covered with snow for months at a time. That’s why they love to bath in the natural hot springs of Japan! Which is totally not normal behavior for moneys. Hmm, they’re up to something…

You can actually visit a Snow Monkey Park while you’re in Japan if you want to meet these awesome guys. The monkeys are pretty used to being around humans, so you can get pretty close to them for pictures, hi fives, autographs… All that good stuff.

And to make it even better, these monkeys are rather well known in the lore of Japan. They often times appear in religion (Shinto), folklore, and artwork. It’s pretty common to see three of these guys with one covering his eyes, another his ears, and the last one his mouth. You know what I’m talking about. 

Better be nice to one when you meet it!

So what do you think about Japanese onsen? Have you ever had the pleasure of trying one of them out? And what do you think about Japan’s Snow Monkeys?

Let me know with a comment below!

2 Comments

  • Chris

    Thanks Nick,
    I am looking to take a trip to Japan next year so I am definitely going to put the Onsens on my list of must do’s. It looks awesome and super relaxing!! Are they easy to find when you are over there? Can anyone typically use the Onsens or do you need to be staying at the Inn accompanying the Onsen?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Chris, that’s pretty awesome that you’re going on a trip to Japan next year! You definitely gotta’ try out the Onsens while you’re visiting.

      They are not exclusively located at inns and Ryokans (Japanese traditional inns), but it is certainly common to find them there. You can kind of think of them as another version of a public bathhouse, if you’d like. Lots of people go to them to relax after a hard day’s work, so you should be able to find one that’s open to the public while you’re over there.

      To find one, look on a map for either the symbol for an Onsen ♨, the kanji for “hot water” 湯, or just the hiragana character for “yu” ゆ which is how it is pronounced.

      You could also ask somebody where you can find one by saying “onsen wa doko desu ka?” which of course means “Where is the onsen?”

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