Soak the Soul: Onsen Culture in Japan

February 18, 2019

Sinking into a hot onsen is one of the simple pleasures of life in Japan. Natural springs heated by volcanic activity, onsen form one of the cornerstones of Japanese culture, especially in the colder months. Found sequestered in river beds, overlooking the sea in exclusive resorts or tucked away in quiet Tokyo suburbs, the baths boast healing properties, skin purification and relaxation of both the muscles and the soul.

Traditionally built outdoors, onsen often come with impressive views and allow visitors to embrace and appreciate nature. Close to Tokyo, Hakone is a popular onsen-town with many baths offering views of Mt. Fuji. Pools deep in the forests of Kyushu like Kurokawa Onsen and those built into island caves on the Kii peninsula like Katsuura Onsen are all unique chances to be at one with natural forces.

While the soul can be cleansed with peace and tranquility, the physical benefits of different water sources are also an important part of onsen culture. Depending on the spring, high levels of minerals and nutrients can add special properties. In Tokyo those looking for skin-cleansing waters can head to Shimizuyu—a kuroyu ‘black-water’ onsen with volcanic ash and plenty of purifying minerals. In Kusatsu, a popular onsen town with traditional cooling techniques, the legend has it that the sulfur-waters cure all ailments except love-sickness. Known for a central wooden ‘water field’ called the yubatake, one of the town’s highlights is watching local women perform a cooling ritual called yumomi in a nearby hall.

As with many Japanese traditions, the ritual and etiquette of onsen are a key element. Bathers must wash thoroughly before entering the water and a myriad of small rules must be followed.1 Hair should be kept up, small towels for modesty are to be kept out of the water and your head should stay above water. These rules, however, simply preserve the purity of the water—allowing everyone to enjoy the experience. The removal of dirt and preservation of the water adds to the calming effects of the ritual, with onsen offering a symbolic opportunity to emerge clear of the grime and stress of daily life.

Although it can be one of the more daunting prospects for visitors, the tradition of nude bathing with family, friends, colleagues and strangers has social benefits too. Embracing all ages, body shapes and nationalities, the onsen offer a chance for children to learn about age and body shape, a rare opportunity in most countries. The concept of hadaka no tsukiai—meaning ‘naked communion’—is a vital part of group bathing.2 Believed to bring out an honesty and understanding between bathers, the open conversations help strengthen relationships and develop trust. While bathing alone is a chance for reflection, bathing together can deepen connections and create bonds in the most unlikely of friendships.

Embracing the tradition and dipping your toes into an onsen can be a unique Japanese experience, cleansing of the mind, body and soul.

  1. Tatoos were once banned for their associations to gangs, establishments are slowly becoming more lenient, especially with visitors.
  2. Although onsen were once mixed, since the Meiji restoration baths have been separated by gender, with some resorts offering shared areas with swimsuit requirements.

For more details, contact DMC Japan to discuss ideas, locations and rates.
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