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Guidebook to Hakone from 1811

An is a term for hot springs in the Japanese language, though the term is often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. A volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered along its length and breadth. Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism.

Onsen come in many types and shapes, including and indoor baths. Baths may be either public run by a municipality or often run as part of a hotel, ryokan or .

Onsen are a central feature of Japanese tourism often found out in the countryside but there are a number of popular establishments still found within major cities. They are a major tourist attraction drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed homey atmosphere of a ryokan with an attached onsen. Japanese television channels often feature special programs about local onsens.

The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji, (yu, meaning "hot water"). Sometimes the simpler hiragana character ゆ (yu) is used, to be understandable to younger children.


Traditionally, onsen were located outdoors, although a large number of inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Onsen by definition use naturally hot water from geothermal heated springs. Onsen should be differentiated from sentō, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water. The legal definition of an onsen includes that its water must contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including radon and metabolic acid and be 25°C or warmer before being reheated. Stratifications exist for waters of different temperatures. Major onsen resort hotels often feature a wide variety of themed spa baths and artificial waterfalls in the bathing area .

Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, marble or granite, while indoor tubs may be made with tile, acrylic glass or stainless steel. Different onsen also boast about their different waters or mineral compositions, plus what healing properties these may contain. Other services like massages may be offered.

Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen and sentō but single-sex bathing has become legalized as the norm since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period. Mixed-sex bathing persists at some special onsen (konyoku) in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate "women-only" baths or different hours for the two sexes. Children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths.

People often travel to onsen with work colleagues, friends, couples or their families.



Ensuring cleanliness

At an onsen, as at a sentō, all guests are expected to wash their bodies and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. Bathing stations are equipped with stools, faucets, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo; nearly all onsen also provide removable shower heads for bathing convenience. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable.


Soakers are not normally allowed to wear swimsuits in the baths. However, some modern onsen having more of a waterpark atmosphere require their guests to wear a swimming suit in their mixed baths.


Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a wash cloth. The towel can also provide a modicum of modesty when walking between the washing area and the baths. Some onsen allow one to wear the towel into the baths, while others have posted signs prohibiting this, saying that it makes it harder to clean the bath. It is sometimes against the rules to immerse or dip towels in the onsen bath water, since this can be considered unclean. In this latter case, people normally set their towels off to the side of the water when enjoying the baths, or place their folded towels on top of their heads.


Onsen vary from quiet to noisy, some play piped music and often feature gushing fountains. Bathers will engage in conversation in this relaxed situation. There are usually prohibitions against rowdiness in the washing and bathing areas of onsen. A small amount of excess energy and splashing around is usually tolerated from children, however.


People with tattoos are usually not welcomed but one may be allowed in if the tattoos are not terribly obvious. If one ventures to an onsen that is publicly owned, this "should not present a problem as they have a duty to let all tax-paying citizens in. The original reason for this ban was to keep out yakuza, or members of other organized criminal gangs."


The volcanic nature of Japan provides plenty of springs. When the onsen's water contains distinctive minerals or chemicals, the onsen establishments display what type of onsen it is.

Some examples of types of onsen include:

In Japan, it is said onsen have various medical effects. Japanese people believe that a good soak in proper onsen heals aches, pains and diseases, and visit onsen to treat the illnesses, such as arthralgia, chronic skin diseases, diabetes, constipation, menstrual disorders and so on.

These medical benefits have given onsen a central role in balneotherapy which is called . Onsen Therapy is a comprehensive bathing treatment conducted to maintain health, normalize dysfunctions and prevent illness.


Although millions of Japanese bathe in onsen every year with few noticeable side effects, there has been concern that the warm wet conditions lead to the transmission of infections. Some concerns include:

  • Athlete's foot fungal infection.
  • The Naegleria fowleri amoeba, which lives in warm waters and soils worldwide and can cause meningitis. Several deaths have been attributed to this amoeba, which enters the brain through the nasal passages.
  • Acanthamoeba, which can also spread through hot springs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Legionella bacteria, which have been documented to spread through hot springs.
  • There is some suggestion that a bather's toe was infected with herpes simplex virus from a hot spring in Japan.
  • There has been some concern that the temperature and mineral composition of natural hot spring water does not represent as much protection from infection as had been thought previously.

Many onsen have posted notices for visitors, reminding anyone with open cuts, sores, or lesions to not bathe. This precaution limits the overall risk to bathers and the overall risk to individuals in good health is very slight. The case scenarios of herpetic and amoebic infections are remarkable not so much in that they occur, but rather that the affected persons are predominantly persons with reduced immune systems and likely skin lesions. (The herpetic infection cited above occurring on the foot of a diabetic individual is a good anecdotal representation.)


"Japanese Only" sign at Yunohana Onsen

In recent years , there has been some controversy over foreigners being prohibited entry to some public baths arising from their abusive behavior and failure to follow traditional etiquette rendering the bath unusable by others which damaged business for the owner. In particular, blame was laid on Russian fishermen arriving in Northern Japanese ports. This issue was highlighted in February 2001, when Debito Arudou and two co-plaintiffs, sued Yunohana Onsen in Otaru, Hokkaido, for refusing service to customers based on race. Yunohana Onsen lost the lawsuit in November 2002. Out of the thousands of onsen that exist in Japan, only three were reported to have practised discrimination of this kind.

Selected onsen

Old Tsuru-no-yu Bathhouse in Nyūtō Onsen
Hotels in Nanki-Shirahama Onsen in Shirahama, Wakayama
Kurokawa onsen rotenburo in Kyushu, Japan

See also List of hot spring in Japan, List of hot spring photographs in Japan.

See also

References and notes

  1. This term should be carefully differentiated from the word which refers to the benefits of physical contact, for instance, on babies by their mothers.
  2. In very isolated onsen, where there is no possibility to use soap before entering in the bath, onsen users are expected to at least rinse their body with the water of the bath before entering it.
  3. "Onsen Warnings and Hassles"
  4. Getting into hot water for health. The Japan Times. May 25, 2003.
  5. Given the popularity of Japanese hot spring bathing, it is not surprising that many of the reports of infection in the medical literature come from Japan.

Further reading

  • Hotta, Anne, and Yoko Ishiguro. A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs. New York: Kodansha America, 1986. ISBN 0870117203.
  • Fujinami, Kōichi. Hot Springs in Japan. Tokyo: Board of Tourist Industry, Japanese Government Railways; Maruzen Company, Ltd., 1936.
  • Neff, Robert. Japan's Hidden Hot Springs. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle, 1995. ISBN 0804819491.
  • Seki, Akihiko, and Elizabeth Heilman Brooke. The Japanese Spa: A Guide to Japan's Finest Ryokan and Onsen. Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2005. ISBN 080483671X. Reprinted as Ryokan: Japan's Finest Spas and Inns, 2007. ISBN 0804838399.

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