What Is An Onsen?

Onsen in Yamagata, Japan.
Onsen in Yamagata, Japan.

An onsen refers to a hot spring in Japan, and it also encompasses traditional inns and bathing facilities found around the hot springs. Japan sits on a band of volcanic fault lines known as the Ring of Fire which stretches along the Pacific Ocean where more than 100 active volcanoes are located. As a result of these volcanoes, Japan has numerous onsens, which are found throughout the country's major islands. Typically, onsens are of different sizes and shapes, and they can be indoors or outdoors. Some onsens are owned by municipalities while others are privately owned. 

History of Onsens

Throughout their long history, onsens were typically found outdoors, but presently most are found indoors as bathing facilities. There are also households which have their own onsen bathing facilities, and the number of the traditional public onsens has decreased in the recent past. There has also been an increase in the number of traditional public sightseeing of hot spring towns which include Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, Kinosaki Onsen, and Akanko Onsen. In the past, both men and women used the same onsen, but gender separation was enforced during the Meiji Restoration of 1868 when the country adopted a more western culture. In certain rural areas of Japan, mixed bathing in some onsens persists. 

Onsen Etiquette

All guests wishing to take a bath in an onsen are required to take a thorough washing and rinse themselves before getting into the onsen. Bathing facilities have common items such as wooden buckets, faucets, shampoos, soaps, and other toiletries. Almost all onsens have removable shower heads which makes bathing and convenient and easier to use. It is socially unacceptable for an individual to enter an onsen when they are dirty or when there have soaps in their bodies. Typically, visitors are expected to bring their small towels which will be used as a washcloth or can serve as a modicum of modest particularly when one is moving from one washing area to another. It is not acceptable to dip or immerse a towel in the bath water in the onsen.

Popular Onsens

The Kusatsu Onsen is among the most famous of the Japanese onsens which have high-quality hot spring water, and it is believed by many to have a wide range of health benefits. The onsen is found at an altitude of about 3,937 feet above sea level in the Gunma prefecture along the Japanese romantic Road. 

The Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is thought to be the world's oldest hotel having opened its doors to the public in the year 705 CE. The hotel is situated in a remote valley surrounded by mountains including Mount Fiji in the Yamanashi Prefecture of Japan. Located on the property are hot springs which supply water to baths in the hotel.

Beppu Onsen is famous for the Nine Hells of Beppu, a designated "Place of Scenic Beauty" and one of the top tourist destinations in Japan. Located on the island of Kyushu, the city of Beppu has almost 3,000 hot springs. The Nine Hells of Beppu is a series of nine hot springs. They are extremely hot in temperature and each a different color due to different minerals.


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