Onsen translates to ‘hot spring pool’, and Japan has a great many. The water is heated by volcanic activity, and depending on the area can produce water infused with iron, sulphur, and plenty of other minerals that are said to heal rheumatism, boost fertility, or reduce high blood pressure. Being as old as Japan itself, they’re deeply rooted in history, representing wellness, status, and the arts. There remains no better way to sink into Japanese culture than slipping into a bath. While it may feel a world away from heading down to Eastern beach with your sombrilla, cooler and family, it’s nonetheless imbued in tradition and custom.
Here is your personal run-down of the five different types of onsen you can find while exploring Japan.
1. THE HIDDEN BOUTIQUE ONSEN
Nestled in the mountains are family-run onsen serving freshly farmed, traditional food. This type of place is where the treats in your bedroom were made by the grandmother, and the fish for dinner was caught by their next door neighbour. Taking the Japanese tradition of omotenashi, ‘want for nothing’, to new heights, they’ll give you everything you could want as if you were one of the family. Being isolated, this type of onsen is usually a ‘ryokan’, a traditional Japanese hotel with futon beds and multi-course meals. While incredibly accommodating, be aware their English may be limited.
Luckily, Wadokosen Yunoyado Wado is the exception and will happily welcome you in English. Set in Chichibu (a two hour train ride from Tokyo), they have onsen baths on the balconies overlooking the gorge, making this a truly boutique mountain escape.
Being as old as Japan itself, they’re deeply rooted in history, representing wellness, status, and the arts.
2 THE ONSEN COMPLEX
Huge sprawling baths, massage parlours, restaurants, relaxation rooms, hammock rooms, saunas, reading rooms… These complexes are purpose-built for spending the whole day soaking, eating, and sleeping. Pay for everything using an electronic wrist band so that you can wander around at ease wearing Jinbei (Japanese pyjamas) doing whatever you please. I usually recommend this for people who’ve been sightseeing hard and need a catch-up day.
Tokyo has Oedo Onsen Monogatari, which is Edo themed. All patrons are given a yukata (easy Kimono) to wander around in, lending it the look of an Edo-era town. This option is great for groups and has great English support.
3 THE OLD AND UNCHANGED ONSEN
Doggedly unaltered from hundreds of years ago with no intention of ever updating its facilities, this type of onsen is rare and hard to reach. If that doesn’t scare you, then be prepared to step back in time and soak as those in ancient Japan did. This means rustic thatch roofs, minimal electronic devices and near bare facilities. It’s you, a jug of water to wash down with, and naturally occurring rock pools.
At 500 years old, Tsuru No Yu (Nyuto) is the oldest in Japan. In the old ways of onsen, it even has a rare, mixed bathing pool. Women enter through a hole in the rock face, obscured by trees, so that they can duck down beneath the pure white waters before they’re seen. Men have no such luck and walk in with everything swinging. However, it is incredibly remote and only accessible by car. A far more accessible one is Dogo Onsen, a day from Hiroshima, which Hayao Miyazaki (co-founder of film and animation studio Studio Ghibli) used as a setting for the onsen house in Spirited Away.
4. THE ONSEN VILLAGE
If the lack of modernised devices sounds a little much for you, then the onsen village should fit your bill. These are traditional mountain towns that have dedicated their communities to providing luxurious weekend breaks mixed with small town aesthetics. These onsen villages often have hundreds of years of history, entertaining nobles and famous poets, and as such strive to keep the inns, shops and shrines of the town as intact as possible. The most charming aspect of an onsen village is their main water feature, around which visitors walk while wearing yukata and geta (wooden sandals), and munching on pork buns or ice cream.
Women enter through a hole in the rock face, obscured by trees, so that they can duck down beneath the pure white waters before they’re seen.
The most accessible from Tokyo is Kusatsu Onsen Village, a magical place written about by Edo-era philosophers and poets alike. As it’s a village, you can take your pick of cheap hostels or upmarket, private bathing inns.
5. THE LOCALS’ ONSEN
The most charming feature of a true locals’ onsen is the incredibly old shrunken woman sat on a high shelf overlooking both of the gender segregated changing rooms. After paying this woman, it’s entirely down to luck what you find next. A pipe sticking out of the wall to wash in, maybe a tiny crammed sauna, maybe there’s a pay-to-use hairdryer, but there will definitely be no free shampoo or conditioner, which all the other options will have. The meet up and gossip centre of town for the majority elderly clientele, this is a truly 50s era local onsen. Expect many stares and curious people.
You can find them in most small towns if you look out for the neon red onsen sign. While they’re not glamorous, they’re great for road trippers and budget tourists.
For more of an in-depth guide on using the onsen, visit: kyushujourneys.com/japan/how-to-onsen.
The Rules of Bathing
Japan being a rule-oriented culture, make sure you remember what to do for a stress-free soak!
- Enter via the correct curtain! Red is for girls, blue is for boys.
- Get Naked. Terrifying, I know, but you’ll have access to bigger baths, sauna rooms and stunning views. If you can’t, then book into a private bathing room.
- No tattoos. (Tattoos are strictly forbidden in most onsen due to their links to organised crime, such as the yakuza. Luckily, lots of onsen are starting to make exceptions for foreigners. Have your hotel desk call in advance to check, or book a private bath.)
- The water is shared communally so everyone washes down, sometimes twice, before getting in. Grab a plastic stool and wash sitting down.
- Take an onsen towel. A very small rectangular towel that a lot of onsen sell or will give you for free. People use this to wash with but then hang it over the front of their body when they move between baths for privacy.
- Don’t put the towel in the water. Leave it on the side, or do what the grannies do, and pop it on your head.
- Sit, relax, and contemplate. (No swimming or splashing.)