From my first hot springs bathing experience, I was sold. I immediately fell in love with the concept and the incredible relaxation that hot springs provide. Hot springs bathing truly takes relaxation and well-being to another level.
For thousands of years, the Japanese have turned to remote hot springs or onsen when they need to rejuvenate and relax. This is considered the ultimate getaway with adoration surpassing the Western view of the spa.
"Hot springs are a chance to return to the self."
Hot springs bathing is about simplicity. Here you will find relaxation through nature, minerals, and water. There are no body treatments, no massages, no music, or gift shops. Hot springs are a chance to return to the self. In this natural environment we are reminded of our true, beautiful, relaxed nature that sometimes gets lost in the hustle and bustle of life.
As with most things Japanese, a soak in a hot spring is not just a soak. It is akin to a spiritual, meditative experience. One can finally let their guard down, forget about their cares, and let nature enrapture them with its beauty.
A volcanically active country, it is estimated that Japan has close to twenty thousand mineral rich hot springs. These springs range from the elegant minimalist hinoki wood hot springs often found adjacent to luxurious ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) where fresh water is piped into the bath, as pictured above, to remote rustic hot springs that seem to have been untouched by time, as shown below. The one thing all these springs have in common is the ability to transform, relax and rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul.
Communal Bathing: Most hot springs in Japan are divided into separate baths for men and women. At first, it may feel awkward to disrobe in front of strangers, but this is one of the beautiful things about hot springs bathing. You will realize that there are women bathing of all ages, shapes and sizes and that everyone is absorbed in their own experience. Any self-consciousness eventually drifts away.
Historically, many homes in Japan did not have their own baths. Communal bath houses were not just functional for bathing, but were a way for neighbors to connect, bond, and even gossip at the end of the day. Though most homes have their own baths now, the lighthearted, friendly spirit still prevails at communal baths.
The Ritual: If you are knowledgeable about Japanese bathing rituals, your first hot springs experience will be much more enjoyable. The first step of any Japanese bath is to clean the body. Most hot springs will have an area close by that will contain a hand-held shower, small bench, and a selection of toiletries Alternatively, you will find hinoki wood buckets which you can use to scoop water from the bath to wash. At some of the more remote, rustic springs, one is expected to bring their own bucket, towel and toiletries. Once you are washed, you can proceed into the bath to soak.
Enjoying the Beauty of Nature: Now that you’ve immersed yourself into the spring, it’s time to sit back and relax. Japan appreciates the beauty of nature and incorporates it into almost all aspects of aesthetics. Hot springs are no different – you will often find yourself surrounded by the most beautiful nature imaginable. Some hot springs exist by oceans, in the mountains, in the woods, or some are configured near inns or homes. Regardless, you will be enveloped in nature and surrounded by seasonal foliage. This moment of immersion is breathtaking and healing beyond description.
The Minerals: Hot springs are categorized by the different minerals they contain. This is serious business in Japan with many doctors prescribing specific soaks to their patients. My favorite types of hot springs are sulfur springs and sodium bicarbonate springs, which are known as “beauty waters”. Both have an amazing soothing and softening effect on the skin, while sodium bicarbonate springs also aid in detoxification.
Local Color: Most hot springs are in towns that are vacations onto themselves. Each area offers its own local cuisine, lore, and traditions. It is immediately evident that you in are in a hot springs resort town when you see people strolling the streets in yukata, a casual cotton version of the kimono. These towns cater to tourism and are extremely hospitable.
"A hot springs bath is a reminder of the calmness that always resides within us."
Hot springs bathing is life-changing, time-tested wisdom. The experience truly altered my perception of what a good vacation is. A step away from our normal surroundings and a step into the beauty of nature is a powerful healing tool. A hot springs bath is a reminder of the calmness that always resides within us.