The Onsen Experience

Though Japanese culture holds many secrets that are difficult for the average foreigner to unlock, the Onsen, or natural hot spring, is one that is more easily accessible.

The Onsen, or natural hot spring, is one of Japan’s least-kept secrets. They have appeared in movies and literature about the island nation- almost like another character in the cast, or background music to the mysterious symphony of Japanese life.

The Onsen remains a way of reconnecting with ancient roots and honoring time-tested traditions. Throughout Japan you can find charming, traditional hot spring resorts where visitors can come for the day or the weekend. It is affordable enough to be included in a modest travel budget, and expensive enough to be a somewhat uncommon treat for the average local. Try visiting the Onsen page of Outdoor Japan at www.outdoorjapan.com for a listing of resorts and locations. Each one offers a variety of amenities including excellent food and Japanese-style accommodations.

The past remains alive and well as generations of Japanese carry on the tradition of bathing in natural hot springs, and most Japanese women count bathing- whether in hot springs or at home- as part of their trove of beauty secrets.

Modern daily life in Japanese cities does not allow time for most people to take off for the weekend and visit a nearby natural hot-springs resort, but even a hectic schedule cannot drive away the desire to submerge in waters that are simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. So what is the solution? Do it the Japanese way- invent a way to have your cake and eat it, too.

Taking a daily bath is an indispensable part of the Japanese way of living. More than a habit or ritual, it is a cultural norm. By western standards a Japanese bath is more like a hot tub experience than an actual bath, since you always, always wash yourself in a shower before getting in the bath. Whether it is in your own home, at a hotel, or at a resort, this rule is unbreakable, so leave the soap behind when you get in the tub.

Although Japan is host to 20,000 natural hot springs, there are still countless neighborhood “hot spring” bathhouses where you can pay a nominal fee (usually about USD $12) to enter a bathhouse for several hours at a time. Once inside, women and men are divided between two large, open bathing areas with showers along one wall and giant group baths in the center or along another wall. The temperature of the water takes some getting used to, as does the fact that everyone is stark naked. Maybe the scalding hot water is made to help foreigners keep their minds off of their exposed bodies. It is still a very relaxing experience, with different “flavored” baths that you can choose between and move between.

Whether you experience a hot springs in a bathhouse or a natural resort setting, it is sure to be a cultural experience you will not soon forget. And as you sink into the boiling waters and let the stresses of life melt away, it will be hard to remember what day, month or century you are in. As it was so eloquently put in the book, A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs, (Hotta/Ishiguro): “On the surface there’s barely a ripple; everything is calm and reassuring. This is Japan. Underneath, things are brewing, bubbling, getting ready to surface. This is also Japan- the fragile chain of volcanic islands that plays host to twenty thousand thermal springs.”

You can find more about Onsen and other outdoor and natural tourist attractions in Japan by going online to www.outdoorjapan.com.

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