Onsen is the Japanese word for natural hot springs which can be found all over the country and are enjoyed as a way to unwind by people of all ages. The word was first written down in English when the English Clergyman Walter Weston wrote his book Mountaineering in the Japanese Alps in 1896. Weston popularized mountain hiking as a hobby in Japan and describes an onsen that he visited during one of his mountaineering trips: “After a day’s rest in the romantic surroundings of the Onsen, I started in the small hours of the morning for the summit of the ‘Dragon Peak’”.
The onsen is a huge part of Japanese culture and you probably won’t find a Japanese person who doesn’t enjoy relaxing in these steaming hot pools of natural mineral water. Many hotels and traditional inns offer onsen for their guests which might be indoor, outdoor or a combination of both, and onsen owned by the local municipalities are also widespread and inexpensive. Outdoor onsen are particularly relaxing because of their natural settings where all you have to do is sit back against the rocks and watch the night sky above.
Key points to remember for an onsen trip are: you must shower and shampoo your hair in the communal washing areas by the pools before entering and you can’t use onsen if you have a tattoo since body art is still somewhat taboo in Japan. Also, for a country that has a reputation for being conservative, it may come as a surprise to some that this is an activity carried out completely naked. It’s only the foreign tourists that you will find tip toeing about with strategically placed hand towels, which can sometimes be considered a little rude, but as a foreigner at on onsen, you inevitably draw a small amount of curiosity. It’s best to forget any physical inadequacies, however, and enjoy the experience. The chemical properties are believed to be good for a range of ailments and the intense heat is deeply relaxing. Japanese people, who have been brought up with onsen, will stay in the poolsfor long stretches, but for those who are not used to the intense temperatures, larger onsen facilities have a mixture of cold, tepid and hot onsen, which is ideal.