What is an Onsen?
If you ever ask a Japanese person what they did for their holiday, there’s a good chance they will mention that they went to an onsen. It’s a popular pastime.
Onsen are hot springs baths. As Japan sits on several active and inactive volcanoes and tectonic plate fault lines, there are plenty of hot spring areas, most of which have been cultivated into public baths.
Throughout Japan, many ryokan (travel inns) provide onsen. There are also large public baths in towns and cities. The temperature of the water in onsen is usually maintained in the range between 37 – 40ºC so they are quite hot.
Benefits of Onsen
Onsen has several benefits. Apart from physically cleansing the body, the higher temperature increases the circulation of blood and lymph and relaxes the muscles. This speeds up metabolism and detoxes the body. The act of immersing yourself in warm comfortable water is like being reborn and creates a state of relaxation. You are in the moment.
Different onsens in areas of Japan also specialise in having baths that are good for specific conditions. For example, some onsen baths have water containing minerals that are good for conditions like arthritis. Others have baths that are good for purifying the skin.
Toru Abo, a Japanese research scientist who specialised in studying the immune system even goes as far to advise the use of onsen as a therapy in cases of cancer because he believes the elevated temperature of the water helps enhance the immune system.
Hot Bath Cure
In Toru Abo’s book – Your Immune Revolution and Healing your Healing Power, a chapter by Kazuko Tatsumura Hillyer, PhD states:
“A Japanese theory that has existed for thousands of years, states that in order to be healthy, our inner body heat must be kept high. We believe that when the inner body temperature is low, cells are deprived of heat, which is energy, and that this prevents the cells and organs from functioning well. Based on this theory, the Japanese have developed many methods for raising heat and body temperature in order to heat the body’s deeper areas.
It’s interesting to learn that Dr Abo recently explained this through his scientific discovery that “a person with low body temperature can’t activate the lymphocytes in his white blood cells; therefore, his immune system can’t function well, even if he has enough lymphocytes and white blood cells.” This is why people with a low body temperature get sick easily.”
In this book, factors that cause low body temperature are identified as being: a lack of exercise, poor diet and eating habits, stress, drugs, smoking, excess coffee consumption, drinking too much water and an irregular lifestyle.
Two methods of increasing the internal body temperature are moxibustion therapy and using an onsen. Tatsumura writes:
“In Japan, we have traditional onsen (hot mineral spring) cures, in which we go to hot spring areas and take multiple hot mineral spring baths for a number of days… This is one of the very best ways to balance the autonomic nervous system.
When you warm your body, you stimulate the elimination of body waste through the skin, stool, and urine; stimulate digestion; relax the muscles; and relieve physiological stress.”
Tatsumura does warn that hot baths (41.6ºC / 107ºF) are not suitable for people with high blood pressure or heart conditions. Although it can be beneficial for people with arthritis.
Onsen, the Ancient Romans and modern-day Japanese
There is a Japanese movie about onsen called Thermae Romae.
In this movie, Abe Hiroshi, a very tall, handsome Japanese actor plays a Roman architect at the height of the Roman Empire who unfortunately is not very successful. His designs are not popular, he is out of work and he comes home to find his wife having an affair with his best friend.
Whilst consolidating himself in the Roman public bath, he is disturbed by all the wild and unruly Romans jumping and playing about in the water. He only wants to relax and to get over his unfaithful wife and work problems.
He sits underwater to escape the noise
Suddenly, he finds himself magically transported to an onsen in modern day Japan. He is shocked at first, but as he looks around he is amazed at the quality and the design of the modern day onsen as well as its rules and etiquette.
Soon after he gets magically transported back to his own time and he sets about using the ideas to design and build more successful public baths back in the Roman period.
Thermae Romae Clip
It is a very funny movie and highly recommended to watch. Here is a YouTube clip, where Abe discovers the modern Japanese toilet for the first time. Japanese toilets are electric with various functions like automatically lifting the toilet seat and playing background music. (This clip is in Italian dub, but you can still understand what’s going on):
The Ancient Roman’s use of Onsen
From a historical perspective, it was of great importance to the Romans to have public baths. There are still remains of public hot water baths in Scotland such as Bearsden and along Hadrian’s Wall, where they made the water hot using an underground heating system. The English city of Bath has a natural source of hot spring water and still houses the intact remains of a Roman bath as well as a modern British version.
Ancient Roman soldier stress
Imagine, an army of young to middle-aged Roman soldiers, from warmer climes in Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa marching thousands of miles north to the Scottish hinterlands where the weather is miserably cold, wet and damp.
Their legs are sore from marching. Their shoulders and arms ache from carrying their back packs, food, shields and sword. They have to be alert to the possibility of attack. Their daily work is marching, setting up camp, preparing fires, gathering food and water, removing their camp and marching some more. It is all hard work.
Then at the end of all that they arrive at their camp on the Scottish border. It is wet, damp and cloudy and you are unwelcome by the locals.
If you imagine that this is your life for the next few months or years, then the desire for some comforts like a hot spring bath are very welcome.
For these soldiers, a visit to an onsen in a heated building, to be immersed in hot water, heated by an underground heating system, accompanied perhaps by some local girls and banter with their comrades, can help to dispel those thoughts of mutiny or desertion.
The Roman army recognised the importance of hot baths as a balance to their hard-working lives. There are sulphur hot springs all over Italy and so these may have been the origin of their habit.
If we fast forward to the modern age in Japan, the Japanese also have adopted hot baths into their culture.
From Ancient Rome to Modern Japan – stress and onsen
In modern age Japan, there are no longer battles with enemies from neighbouring territories or foreign countries. There is no need to train or march thousands of miles or carry supplies. Instead, the nature of work and stress is different.
The Japanese typically work very long hours. Rush hour trains are particularly unpleasant with trains crammed to maximum and long commutes carried out with bodies crushed together armpit to head.
In the 1980s, things were so bad, the train stations had to employ designated ‘pushers’ to literally push excess bodies into the already overpacked trains. There are videos of this available on YouTube, which are worth a look.
With so many bodies crushed close together, sexual harassment has become a social problem in Japan. The phenomenon of ‘chikan densha’, which translates as ‘train pervert’ is very real.
A chikan densha is typically a middle-aged salaryman (company worker) who gropes young women, particularly high school girls in the midst of a packed train. As many Japanese are too embarrassed to kick up a fuss unlike Western women, who tend to be more vocal, they will tend to endure it.
For a woman, being groped on a train is quite common, and on the few occasions that I have asked a young Japanese lady, if she has ever experienced being groped, I was surprised at how often the answer was in the affirmative. Japanese trains have ‘women’s only’ carriages as a result of this problem.
On a side note, some government ministers tried to introduce the ‘woman’s only carriage’ into the UK tube system – no doubt trying to copy the Japanese, which just shows ‘how out of touch / off their heads’ they are.
Obviously, they never use public transport. Because if they did, they would understand that we don’t have the same ‘chikan densha’ problem in the UK. And it would be unworkable given the nature of our trains and platforms and types of people using them.
Japanese work stress
As I mentioned, rush-hour trains in Japan are over-packed and lacking in fresh air and so it is easy to feel sick. Once at the station, you are swallowed up in a sea of black suits all on their way to their workplaces, where they may spend the next 8-12 hours sitting at desks in uncomfortably quiet, open-plan, air-conditioned offices making calls, spreadsheets, replying to emails, getting shouted at by your superiors or shouting at your subordinates or gossiping about your co-workers. Such work and commuting conditions naturally create physical and mental tension.
Often after work, workers are obliged to go drinking with the boss and work colleagues which involves drinking lots of alcohol, eating barbecued meats and complaining some more about work and your co-workers.
Drinking and complaining creates more tension and negative energy which you carry with you. Evening rush hour trains are still busy, albeit not as busy as the morning, but it is still common to not be able to get a seat. After a long day like this, there is no energy for home life or your family and this strains family relationships.
This combination of physical and mental tension has a cumulative harmful effect on the body and creates a risk of depression, family and marital strife, alcoholism and even the dreaded ‘karoshi’ (death by overwork)– a real phenomenon.
This is perhaps, one of the reasons why onsen is very popular in Japan. On day’s off or even after work, people can visit special onsens in the country or even pop into a local public bath to help relax and release the tension that they have accumulated from their work day. By this same token, the popularity of ‘karaoke’ – singing popular songs at special karaoke shops helps to de-stress by singing and releasing all that tension.
How to use an Onsen
There is a very specific etiquette to using an onsen. Firstly, some onsens won’t allow people with tattoos to enter. This is partly to keep any yakuza (Japanese gangsters) or hoodlums out of them as gang members will often have full body tattoos. For most public onsens, this isn’t usually a problem, as like gangsters all over the world, they will have their own places they frequent.
However, it does pose a problem for Westerners as there is a culture of having tattoos and if you have a tattoo, even a very small one, you can be refused entry even though there are more and more young Japanese people adopting the habit. Depending on the extensity of the tattoos, you can either try to cover it up, if it’s not too big or you will have to show the receptionist and ask if they will let you in.
Once past the reception, you enter a changing room area and take a locker. You have to strip completely naked but you are allowed to take a very small white towel to cover your private bits. Then you enter a cleaning area. You must shower and shampoo yourself before you are allowed to enter the public baths so that your body is clean. This includes your hair.
This is quite an important part of the process and some people will spend 5 minutes or more cleansing themselves. It is a communal shower area and the showers are low down at little wash stations with little stools. Body wash and shampoo is provided.
Then when you are washed, you can enter the main bathing area, which is usually through a sliding door. Male and female areas are kept separate, although prior to the Meiji area, they would have been mixed.
It is possible to book various ryokan (inns) in the countryside where you may have your own private onsen if you want to share with a partner. A typical onsen may have different large communal bath areas containing different types of water and mineral composition which are supposed to have different benefits for the body.
For Westerners, it takes a little bit of getting used to especially if you are the only foreigner in the baths (and you likely will be). It is natural to feel a little self-aware but actually no one really cares as long as you are following the bathing etiquette. If you don’t follow it, you will likely get complained about and maybe even a staff member will come and talk to you, which would be quite embarrassing. In Japan, people don’t like standing out.
Entering the baths
You simply pick a bath and enter it and relax as long as you want. If there are several baths, people will move to and fro between them. There will likely be one bath that contains cold water which you can enter to really get the circulation moving.
Some baths have different temperatures. This may be indicated on the wall. if not, you can test the temperature with your hands before entering. It is highly advisable not to plunge yourself into the hottest one. I attended with a Norwegian friend who immediately jumped into the hottest one too quickly. It was a shock to his system and it made him feel unwell. It is best to pick a bath with a lower temperature and take your time to acclimatise to the heat.
Also, it may not be advisable if you have heart problems or high blood pressure to use onsen. Or if you do, then take time to acclimatise to the temperature properly
Most onsens have relaxed and tranquil atmospheres with people sometimes being quiet and sometimes people talking.
What onsen is not, however, is a place where you can jump in, swim, splash people, make lots of noise and act rowdy like Brits at swimming pools in Spanish resorts. If you disturb others, you will be asked to leave. At the end, you can return to the shower area and many people will shower again to wash away any sweat. In the changing area, there are usually sinks and hairdryers available. Back outside in the reception area, those vending machines, which sell cold beers will suddenly become very attractive.
Onsen refreshes the soul, mind, and body
Onsen is a unique Japanese experience which reinvigorates, refreshes and relaxes the body. It also helps create social cohesion and can bind a society together. By entering an area completely naked in the company of complete strangers requires trust and respect for others.
The Japanese identity is very strong probably much like the British used to be. We know this in the way many Japanese use the expression “We Japanese” when talking about their kinsfolk as though they think and all act the same way. In many ways, they do.
Shared experiences such as onsen helps to build unity and trust between people. Immersing yourself in the hot water of onsen literally melts away tension and hardness from the muscles. In the West, hot spring baths are not so common.
The next best thing is hot baths at home and sometimes using epsom salts. If you are walking around with a hard shell of a body, carrying all of your life, family and work stresses in your musculature, it would be beneficial to take regular hot baths. If you visit Japan, you must also do the onsen experience
The Genki Self Health Guide
This article expands on themes from the book – The Genki Self Health Guide: Improve your Body and Mind with Traditional Oriental Medicine. Available on Amazon.
- Vending machines in japan
- Theme cafes in Japan
- Waichi Sugiyama and the tradition of Blind Acupuncturists in Japan
Toru Abo. Your Immune Revolution and Healing your Healing Power: Achieve Longevity by Controlling the Hypothermia and Hypoxia! Babel Press 2013
Woman in Japanese onsen – http://www.123rf.com
Screenshots from Thermae Romae
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