By Pauline Kitamura
Soaking it Up
Japan is located along what is known as the Pacific Rim of Fire, an area that stretches from New Zealand up towards Russia, down the west coast of North America and all the way down the west side of South America. It encircles the Pacific Ocean in a horseshoe shape and is basically an unstable area where different tectonic plates violently converge and collide, resulting in devastating earthquakes and volcanoes. Sitting atop this “rim of fire” doesn’t sound too comforting, but there are definitely some perks – such as the abundance of natural hot springs.
In Japan, “Onsen” (温泉) is the term used for natural hot springs, but there are actually many more words to describe the different types of onsen. For example:
- Rotenburo （露天風呂） = Outdoor open air hot spring. You can find rotenburo at a Japanese-style ryokan or inn or you can find these baths in more rustic settings, such as atop a mountain, close to rivers, and near the sea.
- Uchiyu (内湯) = Onsen and rotenburo are often located within the premises of a hotel or Japanese ryokan （旅館）. These baths are called uchiyu (内湯), meaning “inside bath.”
- Higaeri onsen (日帰り温泉) = Day use hot springs. Onsen at ryokan generally reserved for inn guests but sometimes opened to the general public during limited hours to allow for day use.
There are onsen facilities with no accommodations and are only available for day use as well. These are called tachi yori onsen （立ち寄り温泉） meaning “to stop by” the onsen.
- Ashiyu (足湯) = A shallow onsen for the “ashi” or feet where you sit on a bench, roll up the bottoms of your pants and dip in only your legs.
Women, Men or Mixed?!
It should be noted that, in Japan, onsen are always entered in the buff. Swimsuits are an absolute no-no. Not to worry, however. Onsen are usually separated between men and women. Signs with 女湯 (onna yu) written on a red curtain at the entrance mean women’s bath. The characters for men’s bath, 男湯 (otoko yu) are usually written on a blue curtain. There are, however, places where mixed bathing or kon yoku （混浴） is offered so, if you are uncomfortable, you might want to check just to be sure.
Therapeutic Hot Springs
While onsen are great for relaxing, the Japanese have also long used these baths for therapeutic purposes. The water that bubbles up from within the earth often contains sei bun (成分) or minerals such as sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur. The minerals in the hot spring water are reputed to have healing effects and effectively treat symptoms such as nerve pain, muscle pain, joint pain, bruises, poor circulation and skin rash.
Japanese people like their baths hot, and many onsen are generally kept at a steamy 40 to 43 degrees Celsius. The best way to enjoy the onsen is to sit in for about 10 to 15 minutes, get out and cool off and repeat this process over and over. Be careful not to sit in the hot water for too long though because it may make you noboseru （のぼせる） or feel lightheaded and dizzy.
Recommended Hot Springs
So, now you‘ve got the onsen basics. Yet with literally thousands of onsen to from which to choose, where do you start? That’s the million dollar question. There are areas famous for onsen such as Beppu (in Kyushu), Kusatsu and Izu, but you may uncover some hidden treasures by simply asking a local:
“Osusume no onsen wa doko desuka?” (Where is your favorite/recommended onsen?)
Although not a born and bred, true local, here are a few I recommend:
-Sawada Kouen in Nishi Izu, Shizuoka （沢田公園、静岡県西伊豆）: A tiny onsen located on a huge cliff overlooking the ocean with jaw-dropping sunsets.
-Nyutou Onsen, Akita （乳頭温泉、秋田県）: Rotenburo with milky white waters. During the winter, there’s nothing more surreal than sitting in the hot spring surrounded by snow.
-Takaranoyu, Gunma (宝の湯、群馬県): A huge, open hot spring (one of the largest in Japan) located by a gushing river.
Hot Springs in Japan日本の温泉
温泉 (onsen) hot spring
露天風呂 (rotenburo) outdoor hot spring
内湯 (uchiyu) hot spring bath located inside the premises of a hotel or ryokan inn
日帰り温泉 (higaeri onsen) / 立ち寄り温泉 (tachiyori onsen) day-use hot spring
足湯 (ashiyu) foot bath
Women, Men or Mixed?!女性、男性、混浴？！
女湯 (onnayu) Women’s bath
男湯 (otokoyu) Men’s bath
混浴 (konyoku) Mixed gender bath, mixed bathing
裸 (Hadaka) naked, nude
Therapeutic Hot Springs温泉入浴の効果
成分 (seibun) components, minerals
ナトリウム (natoriuumu) Sodium
カルシウム （karushiuumu） Calcium
マグネシウム (maguneshiuumu) Magnesium
カリウム （kariuumu) Potassium
硫黄 （iou) Sulphur
神経痛 (shinkei tsu) nerve pain
筋肉痛 (kin niku tsu) muscle pain
関節痛 (kan setsu tsu) joint pain
打ち身 (uchimi) bruises
冷え性 (hieshou) coldness due to poor circulation
アトピー(atopee) skin rash
Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot熱い熱い熱い！
あちちち (achichichi) expression for “Ooh, that’s hot!”
のぼせる (noboseru) dizzy, lightheaded
Recommended Hot Springsお勧めの温泉
お勧めの温泉はどこですか？(Osusumeno onsen wa dokodesuka?) Where is your favorite/recommended onsen?