Soaking in Serenity: Exploring Japan's Onsen Culture

Japan, a land where ancient traditions seamlessly blend with modern innovations, offers locals and travellers a unique and rejuvenating experience in the form of its cherished onsen culture. As you journey through the Land of the Rising Sun, one opportunity that you definitely should not miss out on is immersing yourself in the soothing waters of these natural hot springs. Having lived in Tokyo for a while now, one of the things that I often look forward to at the end of a long week is a getaway to the onsen. But if you are new to the sheer bliss that is Japan's onsen culture, not to worry! I asked a few of my Japanese friends and gathered the entail here.  Curious? Follow me on Instagram and Youtube for more adventures!

©flickr/ Private Onsen Spa - Winter

Though first, to truly appreciate Japan's onsen culture, it is essential to understand its historical significance. Even as a resident of Tokyo, I am still learning to this day all the intricacies! The thing is, these hot springs have been treasured for centuries, with records dating back to the 8th century AD during the Nara period. Mindblowing right? What began as a therapeutic retreat for the weary has evolved into a profound cultural experience, deeply embedded in Japanese society. 

Not many people know this, but Buddhism actually played a significant role in the development of onsen culture. Buddhist monks recognised the therapeutic benefits of hot springs and began to use them for medicinal purposes. They established simple bathing facilities near temples and monasteries, allowing travelers and pilgrims to benefit from the healing waters.

This also explains why some onsens are nestled near Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples, adding a spiritual dimension to your bathing experience. After a soothing soak, take a moment to explore these sacred sites and connect with the profound spirituality of Japan.

©flickr/ Private Onsen Spa - Winter

Back to onsen’s brief history - during the Heian period (794-1185 AD), what we know of onsen culture today had continued to evolve. The practice of onsen bathing became more widespread among the aristocracy and elite. The concept of "toji," or onsen pilgrimages, gained popularity as people traveled to different hot springs to experience their healing properties. Eventually, in the 19th century, onsens gained popularity among the warrior class as well. Samurai warriors appreciated the therapeutic benefits of hot springs, especially after battles. Some famous onsens, such as Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, claim to have been frequented by historical figures, adding to their prestige.

The Edo period marked a significant expansion of onsen culture. This era saw the construction of more formalized bathing facilities, known as "sento" or public bathhouses, in urban areas. The public bathhouses made onsen culture more accessible to the common people, and bathing became a daily ritual for many. Then the time from 1868-1912, known as the Meiji Restoration, brought about rapid modernisation in Japan. During this period, the government itself recognised the potential of onsen tourism for economic development. Infrastructure was improved, and railroads were built to connect urban centres with onsen towns, making travel to hot springs more convenient.

© unsplash/ Michael Sum

Japan boasts a diverse array of onsens, each with its unique charm. Whether you seek the tranquillity of an outdoor "rotenburo" with sweeping natural vistas or the communal ambience of a "sento" bathhouse, there's an onsen experience tailored just for you. Some of the most breathtaking onsens can be found in the heart of pristine mountains, providing a stunning backdrop for your relaxation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of onsen culture is the belief in the therapeutic properties of the water. The mineral composition of each onsen varies, offering different health benefits. Sulphur-rich onsens are known for their skin-healing properties, while iron-infused waters are believed to rejuvenate the body, making each onsen visit a unique and revitalising experience.

It's important to embrace the local customs when visiting onsens in Japan. While I live in Tokyo, I was actually raised in the West - Canada to be more specific. We don’t have such an onsen culture or even a culture of bathing in public. With that, comes the idea of taking one’s clothes off and flaunting what you got. The practice of bathing nude may seem daunting at first, but it's a profound part of Japanese culture, promoting equality and cleanliness among bathers. Don't fret; gender-segregated bathing areas ensure everyone's comfort and privacy. With showing all of your skin - traditionally, onsens have been wary of tattoos due to their association with the Japanese underworld (think yakuzas). However, some places are now becoming more accepting, and you can find onsen facilities that permit tattooed visitors. But definitely still do your research or inquire ahead of time to ensure a welcoming experience.

©unsplash/ Susann Schuster

Another thing I love about onsen bathing is how it is delightful year-round. No matter what the season, you can enjoy a dip in the hot springs (yep, even in summer!) Though it takes on an otherworldly charm during the colder months. Imagine yourself submerged in the soothing warmth of an onsen while snow gently blankets the landscape around you. It's a magical and serene experience that's bound to leave you awestruck. 

Japan is dotted with picturesque onsen towns and regions, each offering a unique charm. From the bubbling hot springs of Beppu in Kyushu to the mineral-rich waters of Kusatsu in Gunma or the iconic Hakone in Kanagawa, there's a destination for every traveller seeking relaxation and cultural enrichment.

©flickr/ Private Onsen Spa - Winter

To truly immerse yourself in onsen culture, consider staying at a traditional Japanese inn known as a "ryokan." These accommodations often include private onsens for guests, delectable kaiseki meals, and the opportunity to don a yukata, a casual kimono, for an authentic experience. While these tend to be quite more pricey, you have to remember that it’s a whole accommodation, ontop of an onsen experience for just you and your guests. That way, if you are hesitant about going nude or you have tattoos and can’t find an onsen that allows them, this is a great option! 

Japanese people have long believed in the healing powers of onsen waters. Visitors with ailments or simply seeking rejuvenation flock to these natural wonders. Whether it's relief from arthritis or a simple escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the onsen offers a serene sanctuary for body and soul.

Japan's onsen culture is more than just a hot bath; it is a journey through history, a connection to nature, and a window into the heart of Japanese traditions. As you plan your trip to this extraordinary country, make sure to include an onsen experience, and you will discover a newfound appreciation for relaxation and rejuvenation, Japanese style. So, don't just visit Japan; immerse yourself in it, one soothing soak at a time.

©flickr/ Shawn Harquail

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