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Japanese Customs: Onsen

Hirayu Onsen
Getting naked, hot and wet with a bunch of total strangers is perhaps the most quintessentially Japanese thing to do. There are thousands of onsen (natural thermal hot springs) scattered the length of Japan, perhaps a bequest from the gods made as a sort of natural compensation for all of the earthquakes. No earthquakes equals no onsens, and the Japanese are in general fairly happy with the tradeoff. The difference between onsen and sento (public bathouses) is the water itself (onsen water comes from deep underground, often containing many different minerals, whereas sento water is usually town water from local reservoirs). The mineral content of almost every onsen in Japan is slightly different, and many onsens use the healing effects of their particular mineral mix in their marketing.

Although there are natural onsens in towns and cities, the popularity of relaxing in onsens is such that an entire tourism industry has grown up around some of the more famous onsens in rural and regional areas of Japan. Just as ordinary Japanese have made the act of taking a bath into something equivalent to an artistic ritual, tourism operators have turned some of the more onsen destinations into something akin to a concrete and neon decorated circus. There are however many simple onsens in unspoilt parts of the country, and no trip to or within Japan is complete without enjoying one.

Jozankei Onsen
Although onsen first became ultra popular as destinations in themselves sometime during the Heian Period, many onsens have a history dating back to the earliest years of Japanese settlement. It is likely that the Ainu and wildlife made use of the thermal waters even before this. For example the Yunoyama Onsen in the Suzuka Kokutei Park near Gozaisho-Dake in Mie, not far west of Nagoya, was located in the eighth century by hunters who discovered that deer were enjoying a good hot soak in its waters - to this day Yunoyama's nickname remains "Deer Onsen". Deep in the snows of Nagano, another popular onsen is Jigokudani. To this day it isn't just humans who enjoy the waters, but also the snow monkeys (Japanese macaques). In recent years the monkeys have increasingly started to "colonise" some of the onsen baths lower down in the valley.

Worth visiting

Yamasa's discovery program and the weekend tour program often visit onsens. It is also possible to reach many of these destinations by public transport or rent-a-car. Some of the onsens we visit are:

  • Hirayu Onsen (Gifu) - Due to the bus station here, Hirayu Onsen is also an excellent hub for visiting the area including Kamikochi, Norikura, Shin Hotaka and so on. The large waterfall is also worth a look, especially when it freezes in winter.
  • Gero Onsen (Gifu) - Famous since about the 10th century, Gero is considered to be one of Japan's top 3 onsens. It is a bit overdeveloped, and in peak seasons overcrowded due to mass tourism. On the plus side, it has a good location if you are using the train to visit Takayama, and it is great for après-ski. There are several good ski-fields in the area.
  • Shin Hotaka (Gifu) - The easiest way to visit here is by bus from Hirayu Onsen. The scenery is absolutely fantastic. You can also take the ropeway up to 2200 meters, and from spring to summer hike from the top of the cablecar up over the ridge into Kamikochi in Nagano. There is a great Rotemburo about a kilometer before the Shin Hotaka terminus. Its a mixed bath, but females worried about getting into the bath with the men usually either wear a modesty towel (all of the mixed section is visible from the road above) or go into the "Princess" bath (from which you unfortunately can't see and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery).
  • Yunoyama Onsen (Mie) - The deer onsen, this is also a great place to visit after Gozaisho, and fairly convenient to Nagoya.
  • Bouki-dou/ Boki-do Katsuura (Wakayama) - Located inside a cave next to the open sea, you can see the ocean and hear the waves crashing just outside. This cave onsen is part of the (expensive) Hotel Urashima, but it is possible to visit the onsen without staying in the hotel. You take a boat to the hotel then walk. The town of Katsuura itself is also an interesting place to visit and the harbour is beautiful on a clear night.
    Jigokudani Onsen
  • Yunomine Onsen (Wakayama) - Located close to the World Heritage listed Kumano Hongu Taisha, this onsen was used for purification rites. The onsen is ancient, and considered the oldest in Japan. Particularly interesting is the "Tsubo Yu", a tiny onsen is part of the also excellent public bath (most of the other onsens are private and are tucked away inside ryokan or minshuku) which offers two baths with different water mixes (one is 50% onsen / 50% river water, the other 100% onsen water). There is often a queue for the Tsubo Yu (you book at the public onsen), but it is worth the wait. This tiny rock bath in the Yunotani river changes its color (slightly) about 7 times a day, however you are unlikely to be in there 7 times to witness the changes, or even notice. Popular with couples, soaking in the tiny bath (only 2 people can fit inside) is said to result in a very healthy baby. Yunomine is famous as a healing onsen. The minerals in the water make it a sodium bicarbonate hydrosulfuric spring, effective for neuralgia and skin diseases etc. Warriors used to come here if wounded in battle.
  • Rakuda-no-yu (Wakayama) - This onsen is surreal. To get there you need to take a boat from Kii Katsuura, but the scenery is incredible, and I won't say anything about the camel (rakuda), go there and see for yourself. This is a mixed sex bath, but the management require you to wear swimwear (which can be rented). The swimwear rule is basically due to "meiji to postwar period" American puritanism.
  • Tsugaike (Nagano) - Located in the base village of the vast Tsugaike Kohgen skifields, this is one of the best après-ski onsens in the Hakuba/Otari valley. If you are really keen, you can ski/board all day, then soak, then ski/board again under the floodlights, before retiring to a cosy bar such as Tampopo. Sometimes a little decadence can go a long way.
  • Suzuran-no-yu (Nagano) - Located next to Lake Shirakaba, this is a great après-ski onsen since it is close to ski fields such as Echo Valley and you get a good view of the lake which freezes during the winter. The ice is thick enough to walk on so its popular for ice-fishing. The village also has an ice sculpture festival in February that is worth checking out.
  • Jigokudani (Nagano) - The onsens are great, especially outdoor rotemburo, but the main attraction is to see the onsen monkeys bathing. A difficult and time consuming place to get to without a car though.
  • Jozankei Onsen (Hokkaido) - Jozankei is a beautiful gorge on the Toyohira River with forested scenery, yu-no-taki (a hot waterfall), and therapeutic waters. Its said to be good for those who suffer rheumatism, neuralgia or gastro-enteric disorders, but it is also a lot of fun. More baths than people on weekdays, and even slides etc. It is also great for après-ski since there is the Sapporo Kokusai ski resort nearby. Its about 30 kilometers southwest of downtown Sapporo and accessible by bus.

    Closer to home

    Some of the onsens you can visit locally are the onsens of Gamagori on Mikawa bay (about 15-20 minutes from Okazaki by local train), those on the Chita peninsula south of Nagoya (such as Shirasuna-no-yu), and in the mountains north of Toyokawa in the Horai area such as Yuya Onsen. The small mountain village of Asuke with its thatched houses and scenery also has a good onsen. You can reach Asuke by bus from the Meitetsu Higashi Okazaki station.

    Even closer to home is the Takechiyo Onsen near Motojuku station (Meitetsu line) far in the east of Okazaki City. If you haven't been to an onsen before or are a little worried about the costs involved (for transport, not so much the onsen itself), another option you might want to take advantage of Wakamatsu Onsen near Minami Park. In recent years, a new trend has been to transport onsen water by pipe or tanker truck to artificial onsens in towns. The Wakamatsu Onsen in Okazaki (within walking distance of the Yamasa accommodations) is such as example. It is cheap, and a good way to familiarise yourself with the etiquette etc involved.

    Rules and Customs

    Just as many Japanese (even those who live in onsen towns) travel long distances to enjoy onsens, many people come to Japan just to experience some of the thousands of natural (and not sometimes not so natural) onsens that Japan has to offer. However, please note some of the rules and customs before you get naked...

  • Take your shoes off at the entrance and put them in the lockers/cabinet/shelving provided.
  • Bath naked, unless (as in the case of "Rakuda-no-yu") the management specifies otherwise.
  • Wash your body before entering the onsen bath. Rinse off all of the soap suds thoroughly.
  • Don't bring your large towel into the bathing area. You can use a small "humility" towel to cover part of yourself - and these can usually be purchased for about 200-250 yen at the onsen. In the case of mixed outdoor baths such as near Shin Hotaka, the large towels a girl would need to wrap herself in usually can't be purchased, so bring your own.
  • If you have any jewellery, especially silver, take it off and put it inside a locker (or leave it in your car etc). It may be tarnished by the minerals in the waters.
  • Do Not wash clothes at any onsen.
  • Dry yourself before returning to the changing area.
  • Ask if there are any local rules.

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