When asking Japanese people, “Where do you go for relaxation and healing?” a large portion of the answer has always been “Onsen” – hot springs. I too, am one of them who long for a spa resort when I feel tired.
But this doesn’t mean that it can be any hot spring. The Land of Hot Springs Japan has thousands of springs, each differing in its elements, benefits, the manners to appreciate them, as well as environment and conditions. Studies on bathing in hot springs have been going on for centuries and probably know no end. It is not until these are correctly understood that true benefits of hot springs are appreciated.
For nearly 1,300 years, Japanese people have loved onsen as their physical and mental healers. There is history, there is tradition and there is culture.
The first volume on Japan Mode Onsen Guide will cast the spotlight on famous hot spring resorts, guiding the readers through the unique Japanese hot spring culture and the correct bathing manners no other guidebooks do.
Japan’s oldest existing historical document Nihon Shoki completed in 720A.D. tells the first record of hot springs used as means of healing and relaxation to be of an Emperor at that time. Ever since, toji – hot-spring cure – has become increasingly popular over the years, not only among the imperial line and aristocrats but also among injured generals and warriors.
Today it is said that the number of hot springs in Japan mounts up to as more than 3,000 covering a very wide range of variety. While many imagine hot springs to have the right temperature for bathing or hotter, there are cold ones as well. As for colors, some are transparent while some others are milk white, greenish, reddish or brownish, and the smell can differ as much as the color can.
These differences are created by the delicate balance of elements or ingredients of each spring, and determine the best way to appreciate each of their benefits. The hot springs of the famous spa town Kusatsu require people to keep track of their bathing minutes. Besides the hot springs in which you bathe inside the water, there are those in which you bathe in the sand or mud, and those in which you drink. They are all hot springs.
Since there are more than 3,000 spa resorts in Japan as mentioned above and is rather difficult to introduce them all, I will start with the basic manners of bathing in a hot spring before going into specific guides.
<Hot Spring Manners>
1. Kakeyu – because it is common in Japan for several people to use the same bathtub, one must pour a good scoop of hot water (usually taken from the tub) on him/herself before getting inside the tub in order to keep the water as clean as possible. This is called kakeyu, and is the first and most basic yet important etiquette of baths.
It is due solely to social manner, however, that kakeyu is so important. Kakeyu has another key function to warm up one’s body and get prepared to go into the hot water. Especially during winter when the body is cold, going straight into the tub can cause fatal accidents. The usual manner is to pour some starting from your feet and hands first, going up towards your torso and lastly head. Be sure to do this slowly, as well as caring to wash away dirt.
2. Slowly – the main reasons for stepping into the tub slowly are basically the same as the reasons above: to be polite to the other users, and to prevent you from getting a heart attack. First, soak your body to around your waistline, and as you get used to the temperature, let the water surface cover your shoulders. In doing so, be careful not to wet your towel. Perhaps you may want to try putting it on your head as many Japanese people do when relaxing in the tub. This actually has a couple of reasons: to keep your towel from dissolving since some springs and towels can have bad chemical reactions (even if it doesn’t dissolve, it can change colors) – and another, which is peculiarly Japanese in a cultural sense.
”Naked Relationships” as we say in Japanese, there is this sense of “open relationship” living in Japanese people and society from long ago. It is the understanding of opening up one’s heart and have frank communications by exposing everything and not covering your body with a towel or a piece of cloth. Enjoying communications in such manners is also one appeal of hot springs.
There is also a scientific reason for putting the towel on your head. It is healthy to warm your body, but is rather dangerous to heat your head. The wet towel acts as ice to cool down your head and prevents it from getting dizzy.
3. Don’t stay too long – depending on each hot spring, there are some that have relatively strong chemical elements (mostly acid) or high temperature. When you feel like maybe you should get out, you should. Bathing in a hot spring for too long can put your body into a status in which your body temperature is higher than your capacity and can give high blood pressure and rapid heart rate. When situations become worse, you can get yuatari – thermal crisis – and suffer symptoms similar to those of heat attack or sunstroke.
4. Take a shower – in some cases, you may need to take a shower after bathing in the hot spring. Even though usually it is better not to wash away the hot spring ingredients on your body so that they can sink into the body through your skin, some are better to wash off due to strong acid. Those with delicate skin may have to be careful in choosing which spring to bathe in.
Above are the basic rules of bathing in a hot spring. In most cases, that is to say excluding outdoor springs where people bathe with swimming suits on, people are expected to bathe naked. Thus for those with religious reasons or personal disliking, hot springs may be a kind of leisure not very handy. Having said so, spa resorts with private baths or reservations are remarkably increasing these days so that more and more people can enjoy and truly relax. In the following volumes I will try to introduce such facilities across the country. Stay tuned!