Onsen, an essential experience in Japan

One of Japan’s deepest and most ancient traditions is onsen.

Onsen is the Japanese term for “hot springs”. Taking part in an onsen bath is an indispensable experience for people who travel to Japan. For the citizens of Japan, onsen is an imperative element of life.

This island nation is blessed with numerous natural hot springs found in every region of the country. There are thousands of resort towns centered around hot spring resources. Onsen is a major cultural marker of Japanese society and is a major draw for tourists.

What is an Onsen?

Although onsen is a noun (a thing) the word is also used as a verb (an activity). An onsen is a hot spring and the phrase “onsen in Japan” refers to people bathing in these mineral-rich hot springs.

Japan’s hot springs are is fed by underground water heated up by volcanic activity. The waters are also rich in dissolved minerals which are considered therapeutic. Each onsen has a unique blend of mineral content believed to have different health benefits and effects.

Onsen can be done alone but is most often a social activity. Onsen facilities are operated by both local municipal entities and private businesses. The latter are hotels, spas and bed breakfast operations.

Do I have to follow any rules in an Onsen?

Onset is regulated by the Japanese Ministry of Public Health which administers safety checks of all public waters.

However, there are rules for onset that are best be considered as strict rules of etiquette. Japan has always been a culture that places a high degree of importance on traditional etiquette. 

Among the most important rules is a requirement of personal cleanliness before entering the hot spring bath. Guests are expected to wash and cleanse themselves thoroughly. Entering onset with any spot of dirt or soap on the body is socially unacceptable.

For centuries onset was done in the nude but modern bathers generally bring with them small towels used to wash and to provide for personal modesty. It should be noted that some baths prohibit bringing towels into the water itself. Bathers generally set towels close by outside of the water or rest the towel on top of the head

Some modern onsens that have a kind of “water park” atmosphere allow for the wearing of a bathing suit. Many of the more traditional baths do not allow this.

It’s important to note that more than half (56%) ban people with tattoos from entering onsen baths.

Best Onsen in Japan

Finding the best onsen can be described as an embarrassment of riches. This small nation has thousands of onsen facilities of extremely high quality. That’s in terms of the water itself, surrounding location and accommodations.

Kusatsu

One of the finest is in Kanto, a part of the greater Tokyo area. The Kusatsu Onsen has been called by travel writers “the best and most effective water” of any onsen in Japan. Kusatsu Onsen is located in a magnificent mountainous region where there is also winter skiing and world-class hiking in the warm seasons. 

Manza

The Manza Onsen has the most sulfurous waters in Japan. It is located on the glorious slopes of Mount Shirane in central Japan’s Kanto Region in the Gunma Prefecture.

Hakone

Also near Tokyo, Hakone Onset enjoys numerous hot springs in a lovely forested setting near the sparkling waters of Lake Ashinoko. Hakone has been among the most popular hot spring resources in Japan for centuries.