How to enjoy volcanic spring baths – nature’s gift to Japan

Japan is situated in the “ring of fire” on the rim of the Pacific Ocean where many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

Although this increases the risk of natural disasters, it also accounts for the large number of hot springs. For many centuries, these have been cherished as places to bathe and until relatively recently many people went there almost daily in order to wash.

Nowadays, going to a hot spring bath, known as an onsen, is more of a leisure activity. But it can be a daunting experience for foreigners, as this week’s Japan Story guest writer David Tonge explains.

By David Tonge  

Japanese people of all ages and backgrounds seem to feel an almost spiritual reverence for hot spring baths, known as onsen. Many are found in rural areas and in some places, such as Beppu on the southern island of Kyushu, large tourist resorts have developed around the baths, attracting visitors from across Japan and other parts of Asia.

You can also find onsen in big cities, such as Osaka and Tokyo. The urban versions are known as a sentou. When people did not have hot water plumbing in their homes, they used the onsens as public bathrooms. Nowadays, the main aim seems to be to relax in the hot natural water, which is also said to have healing properties. 

After spending some time in Japan, I was invited to take the plunge and visit an onsen. Actually, plunging is certainly not allowed.  And as I was about to find out, the public bath experience, like many aspects of Japanese life, comes with rules and rituals. 

For a long time, one of the rules was no tattoos, although this is often relaxed nowadays, especially for foreign tourists. Other rules are important to maintain the clean and relaxing atmosphere: no entry after drinking or immediately after eating, no splashing, no diving, no soaping in the bath, no diving or running.

For a foreigner, one of the more surprising traditions is that bathing suits are not worn. That means, to enjoy an onsen, you must be prepared to enter a pool of naked people. The baths are therefore strictly separated by gender. Actually, I have heard a rumour that there are mixed baths but try as I might, I have not yet been invited!  

After entering and putting your clothes into the locker, you pick up an incredibly small towel – not much bigger than a handkerchief – to cover your modesty – well, just! And at the same time as undressing, I have noticed that as a foreigner, you sometimes receive intrigued glances from the locals.   

Inside the bathroom, a large communal bath is often situated near a window with a view of a garden, although outsiders cannot peer in. Around the  perimeter of the bath are little showers, with stools for customers to sit on.

The process is that you first clean yourself thoroughly with soap, aided by the tiny towel, before showering and then cleaning up your area for the next person. After this you can slowly enter the bath, which is usually maintained at a temperature of around 42 degrees celsius and then soak for about ten minutes, while studiously avoiding everyone’s gaze. 

The feeling of relaxation is wonderful. Even self-conscious foreigners like myself can learn to enjoy it after overcoming the initial embarrassment of getting  naked in company. 

As for the health benefits of onsen, as an arthritis sufferer I believe it definitely helps my condition.

So, whenever I book a hotel or guest house, I always enquire if it has its own public bath, or if there’s one close by. I have learned to relish these moments of calm and self-care.

Nowadays, when people ask me if I like onsen, I smile and reply “I love them”. To which they often reply: “Ah, you have become truly Japanese!”