Today people can enjoy many unique Japanese products and cultural items in the U.S., such as Japanese food, manga and anime, hi-tech home electronics, gadgets, martial arts and the tea ceremony. However, you cannot enjoy the blessings of hot springs (onsen) until you visit Japan. Once you experience onsen in Japan, you will definitely fall in love with them. There are countless onsen areas spread throughout the nation and each has unique features in terms of spring water quality, location, accessibility, lodging, history and local foods served. It’s hard to decide which onsen to visit from here in the U.S., so Chopsticks NY introduces tips for selecting onsen as well as some of the most popular onsen areas among the Japanese.
The first thing you should do is to narrow down the purpose of your onsen visit. Think carefully about whether you would like to go there just to experience Japanese onsen, if you want to explore the local culture as well, or if you expect to heal some of your specific, physical problems. Most U.S. travelers fall into the first two categories.
In the first case, you should choose relatively big, commercially developed onsen areas that are also accessible from hub cities. Hakone Onsen and Atami Onsen are close to Tokyo. The former is located 60-90 minutes southwest of Tokyo by either bullet train (shinkansen) or regular train, and the latter takes about 50 minutes by shinkansen southwest from Tokyo (If you take the train, it takes about 2 hours). Arima Onsen is only about 60 minutes from Osaka by express bus or 60-70 minutes by train and bus. Because of this convenient proximity from the big cities, you can even do a one-day onsen trip.
The second case might be a little bit complicated because you have to think about other factors like what type of culture may interest you. If you are interested in tradition, you may want to visit UNESCO World Heritage site and onsen. “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range” can be enjoyed with Yunomine Onsen, Kawayu Onsen and Wataze Onsen. After visiting “Shrines and Temples of Nikko,” you can drop by Kinugawa Onsen. “Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and Its Cultural Landscape” is in the same territory as Yunotsu Onsen.
Some onsen locations have appeared in classic novels. Dogo Onsen, in Ehime Prefecture, is featured in Botchan by Soseki Natsume, Yuzawa Onsen is at a ski resort in the main locale of Yukiguni (Snow Country) by Yasunari Kawabata, and in the Kawabata novella Izu no Odoriko (The Dancing Girl of Izu) the main characters travel across several onsen areas in the southern part of the Izu peninsula.
What type of views you prefer can also help you decide. Onsen in the middle of the woods and alongside the ocean provide completely different atmospheres. Trees are believed to emit negative ions that purify the air, so you can enjoy shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) to get extra relaxation from nature in the woods. Onsen areas beside the sea can offer vast ocean views and freshly caught seafood.
Hakone Onsen, introduced earlier, is located in the mountains, but it’s also close enough to the ocean to be able to have fresh seafood. Izu Peninsula, also mentioned earlier, has both seaside onsen towns and mountainside ones, so if you have a few days for an onsen tour you can go onsen hopping.
If you like skiing and snowboarding, Niseko on the island of Hokkaido, Zao in Yamagata Prefecture, Kusatsu in Gunma Prefecture and Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture are popular destinations. Each onsen area has its own regional delicacies to attract visitors, and it’s hard to tell which one is more notable than the other. However, during the winter the Japanese travel to areas from Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui to the San-in region (Tottori, Shimane and Yamaguchi Prefectures) to enjoy locally harvested crabs along with onsen.
It might not be easy access from hub cities, but extremely popular onsen areas among the Japanese include Nobotibetsu Onsen in Hokkaido, Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture, Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture, Beppu Onsen and Yufuin Onsen in Oita Prefecture and Ibusuki Onsen in Kagoshima Prefecture.
The Japan National Tourism Organization lists notable onsen spots on their website in English.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. There are some manners and tips for when you soak in onsen. First of all, no matter how big an onsen bath tub is it must be shared with other people, so you should wash your body before bathing. You might want to soak as much as you can in order to get the most benefits from the onsen, but that’s actually a dangerous idea. Here are some general rules: if the water temperature is lukewarm you can be in the onsen for 10 minutes, but if you feel like the temperature is hot you should reduce your bathing time to 5 minutes. Soaking in onsen is extremely energy consuming, and there is the possibility of passing out. Taking rests while bathing is very important. Also, bathing only 1 time is recommended the first day you arrive at the onsen. From the second day on, you can increase the amount of times you bathe little by little, but do not exceed 4 times a day.
You can use regular towels at onsen but tenugui are commonly used. This is a thin, rectangular, plain-weaved cotton cloth traditionally used as a hand towel in Japan. Wet and squeeze a tenugui, fold it into 5 by 8 inches and put it on your head while bathing at home. It won’t give you any special effect, but it will make you feel as if you were bathing in a Japanese onsen. Today the usage of tenugui has expanded to wrapping cloths, scarves and home decorations. You can find it at Japanese gift shops like Kiteya and Kinokuniya Bookstore, as well as the tenugui specialty online shop www.wuhao.com.Hinoki Aroma Bath Soak
Hinoki is a kind of wood that’s traditionally used for making onsen items including bath tubs, mats, buckets, and chairs. Hinoki’s natural smell is so soothing. This Hinoki Aroma Bath Soak is infused with hinoki and natural palm oil, and it offers a therapeutic and relaxing touch to your day. Available at Jmarket.comOnsen Bath Bucket
These Japanese handcrafted buckets are modeled after the bath buckets that have been long used at onsen and in Japanese households to pour water over one’s body while bathing. Made of hinoki wood, it gives off a relaxing, natural aroma. Available at Jmarket.comOnsen Bath Salt “Tabi no Yado”
There are several onsen bath salts available, but this Tabi no Yado Hot Springs series is a long time seller. It comes in an assortment pack of bath salts, with each mimicing the aroma of famous onsens in Japan. Not only are these aromas enchanting, but they are also therapeutically beneficial. Available online and at Japanese grocery stores.