Visiting onsen bullet-train

What You Should Know Before Visiting Japanese Hot Springs

Onsen are something of an institution in Japan. An abundance of active volcanoes makes the country a hot spot (forgive me!) for natural springs of all types, drawing in city-dwellers from far and wide who are looking to escape the rat race and relax. If you’re thinking of visiting onsen during your trip to Japan, this five-minute guide will help you choose the right type of hot spring and bathe just like the locals.

Visiting onsen
Photo by Fumiaki Yoshimatsu from Tokyo, Japan (Akita) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Soaking up the Benefits: Types of Japanese Hot Springs

In Japan there are thousands of hot springs, each containing various minerals and providing different health benefits. Visiting any hot spring will ease your mind and body but if you are suffering from any specific aches and pains or want to look younger, it’s important to choose the right kind to help you make the most out of your onsen experience. Here is a list of the types of hot springs and their benefits.

  • Simple hot spring. Also known as the beginner’s hot spring, the water is colourless and odourless but soft and gentle on the skin, and is known for the healing qualities it provides for sufferers with back pain.
  • Sulphur hot spring. A sulphur hot spring will soften your skin and relieve any rashes. It has quite a distinct odour of rotten eggs so be warned – you may need a strong stomach! The sulphur is also said to expand the blood vessels and helps reduce the blood pressure of its bathers.
  • Alkaline soda spring. This spring beautifies the skin and is recommended for women in particular. Often referred to as the “spring for beautiful skin”, the alkaline washes away the fat from the surface of the skin and leaves the body smooth and soft.
  • Iron spring. There are two main types of iron springs; the carbonated iron spring and the melanterite spring and they are both recommended for those with anaemia. As it contains iron, the water is rust coloured and is said to replenish bather’s iron level through absorption in the skin.
  • Chloride spring. There are three types of chloride springs; salt, calcium and magnesium. One of the most popular types of Japanese hot springs, the chloride warms up the body so wave goodbye to those cold fingers and toes.

The Onsen Etiquette

The majority of onsen are nude-only and you will not be allowed to enter the baths if you are clothed. This is just a little pre-warning as you don’t want to be caught off guard! Before you enter the hot spring, you will be expected to shower; if showers are not provided, you can wash yourself using a bucket.

A few onsen do allow bathing suits so if you do feel uncomfortable about bearing all, do a little research beforehand. Japan Guide has an extensive list of some of the best onsen in Japan, which should help you to find the right one that suits your bathing preferences.

A little privacy can be gleaned from the modesty towels provided by the onsen. Cover yourself between the changing room and the hot springs but leave it on the side so as not to contaminate the water. Always remember to ease into the water, taking care not to splash or dive. Swimming is also not advised, as this a place of relaxation, the hot springs should be used for a quiet and contemplative soak.

After bathing, there are relaxation rooms where you can sit or lie down to rest because after all, pampering can be tiring! In this area you are allowed to wear clothes, and as you have been acting like a local, you should dress like a local. Japanese Kimono are light and soft on the skin, and come in various beautiful designs.

Be warned: tattoos are frowned upon and are forbidden in some onsen as they are commonly associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia). If you are inked, try to cover your tattoo up with a bandage to show your consideration for the culture.

Other Top Tips for Visiting Japanese Onsen

  • Drink water beforehand so that you don’t get dehydrated.
  • Go in the right changing room; the general rule of thumb is blue curtain for boys and red curtain for ladies.
  • Take off accessories, glasses etc., and tie your hair up if it is long.
  • Do not get soap, shampoo or dirt in the onsen. The water must be kept clean, so shower and rinse fully before getting in.
  • Don’t have more than six baths in a day. One 30-minute bath expends roughly the same amount of energy as a 1,000 metre run at full speed, so take care of yourself and rest afterwards.

Finally, relax! Visiting onsen is an exhilarating experience, so allow yourself to be immersed in this age-old tradition, enjoy the sensations of the hot water and minerals against your skin and try not to worry too much about the etiquette. So long as you follow the basic principles outlined here, you’ll be bathing like the locals in no time – and enjoying the natural benefits of the hot springs every bit as much. (But maybe not quite as much as these little guys…)

 

Visiting Japan this winter? This winter travel guide contains lots of inspiration for other amazing things to do and places to visit. Alternatively, follow The Japanese Shop on Facebook or Twitter for regular titbits of information on all things Japanese.

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