Japanese Onsens and the Hot Spring Tradition

In a couple years, the Olympics will be held in Tokyo, Japan, which means millions of foreigners will get to experience the joy of the Japanese onsen, or public baths.

A closer look into the Japanese onsen tradition will show us how hot tubs can connect to culture, community and health.

Japanese onsens are built on natural hot springs. As a volcanically active country, Japan boasts over 3,000 naturally-occurring hot springs, each with its own levels of natural minerals like sulphur, chloride, and sodium bicarbonate. Most onsens have their own inns and B&Bs to host visitors in these remote areas. These inns have been passed through the family for hundreds of years, and each onsen has its own story and mythology about how it was discovered and how it’s blessed by friendly gods.

An Important Part of Culture and History

Onsens are part of a sacred tradition. The introduction of Buddhism promoted ritual bathing as a part of being spiritually worthy and mindful, but even before Buddhism was introduced to the country, natural hot springs were regarded as a gift from the gods. Onsens drive Japanese tourism within the country, and many city-dwellers retreat to the remote outdoors in order to enjoy the quiet healing of beautiful views and warm mineral springs. In fact, over 46% of Japanese pleasure-seekers prefer a visit to the hot springs over travel overseas, a concert, or a movie.

Benefits of Onsen

The health benefits of onsens are numerous. For one thing, their naturally-occurring minerals are thought to enrich the body and heal ailments. There are also the relaxing and stress-relieving benefits of hot water in a natural environment. However, there’s also an element which most foreigners would skip over. Hadaka no tskiai translates roughly to “naked communion” referring to the homey, comfortable atmosphere that’s promoted in these hot springs, and the way that it enables community and communication in a way that other atmospheres cannot.

Many foreigners shy away from the extraordinary experience of an onsen because usually people bathe naked. Depending on the facility, this might not be the case. Some allow bathing suits. For ones that require naked bathing, it’s usually segregated, although there are also sometimes private reservations available for mixed groups.

Can You Get the Same Benefits from a Spa?

Now, we know that hot tubs aren’t the same as natural traditional hot springs, but there are still times when it can feel like a gift from the gods. Soothing hot water soaks with therapeutic massaging jets will relax the body and soothe muscle aches. And we all know that there is a special atmosphere of interaction that’s cultivated in a hot tub, when friends chat and relax together.

So, if you ever visit Japan, make sure to add a traditional onsen to your itinerary. And in the meantime, enjoy the benefits of a hot tub soak in the comfort of your own home!

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