If you’re sore from hiking or tired from Izakaya-hopping in Japan, there’s a perfect way to unwind—sink into one of the many warm and fuzzy onsens (hot springs). Rooted deeply in the Japanese culture, these baths are considered therapeutic, mystical and holy.
How they came about is not clear, but they are believed to date back to the first century. One finds their reference in the Nihon Shoki, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history. Once the railways developed in the island nation, onsens moved up in status from being a traditional endowment that could only be accessed by the nobility and warrior clans, to one of the island nation’s top touristy attractions today, gathering name, fame and carving an identity for itself.
Back in the day, these baths were called ‘health resorts’ and were a thing of luxury, especially in the Kamakura period (1192 to 1333), also the time when feudalism was gaining root in Japan.
While there are hundreds of onsens in Japan, some of the best ones are located in the country’s northern island of Hokkaido. Owing to a lot of geothermal activity (hot springs are heated by geothermal heat) in the area, there are several peaceful ones to choose from. But mind your etiquette before you take a dip.
* Swimsuits, wraparounds, and towels should not be taken into the water. Even though some of the modern ‘konyokus’ or mixed-gender baths, allow bathers to wear wraps, traditionalists cringe at the thought. These springs are traditionally meant for nude bathing.
* Do not jump into the water. Ease yourself in. Onsen’s should not be treated like swimming pools. Do not wear goggles or swimming caps.
* You are expected to remove makeup before entering an onsen. Most baths will provide a cleansing oil, but you can use your own too.
Wash before you head into the waters. This is done to maintain hygiene and to prevent a heat shock upon entering, as bathing before will neutralise the body’s temperature. Be careful as to not occupy the washing space for too long.
* Tie your hair in a ponytail or bun if you have long hair.
* Certain onsens prohibit people with tattoos as the social stigma around them is very strong, however, things are changing.
* Do not be noisy: Locals enjoy these baths for relaxation. Loud chatters can be disturbing.
* Phones should not be carried in the bath nor should they be used in the changing room. It is.
* People with BP conditions should consult their doctor before heading to an onsen. In the hot water, blood vessels widen and blood pressure decreases. But when you leave the water, these blood vessels contract, increasing pressure immediately.
* Do not use other people’s shampoos if you see them lying around. Only use the ones provided by the resort or carry your own.
* Do not carry liquor or tobacco into the water.
* Running around or creating a nuisance of any kind won’t be taken kindly.
Once you have check-listed the above, you are free to enjoy the many benefits of the healing waters. It is especially great for those suffering from rheumatic conditions and sleeping disorders. Because the water has a high concentration of silica, a chemical compound that promotes the production of collagen, it treats rough or eczema-prone skin very well. Need any more reason to travel for to experience one?
* Just because there is a warm body of water, does not mean it is an onsen. It has to be a certified bath to be considered an onsen.
* The water temperature must be over 25°C.
* An onsen derives its therapeutic value through its mineral content. These include calcium, sulphur, iron, and magnesium.
* There is no standard colour of an onsen’s water. It can range from clear to cloudy.
Once the railways developed, onsens moved up in status from being a traditional endowment that could only be accessed by the nobility and warrior clans, to one of the top touristy attractions today