Hot spring resort towns often have the word “onsen” added to their name, such as for example Beppu Onsen. Going to the onsen is integral part of the experience of traveling in Japan. Nothing is more restorative after a train ride or a hike than soaking in the mineral waters of a hot spring.
The presence of hot springs often announces itself by a sulfuric smell in the air. Sometimes, one can even see the steaming waters of a hot source flowing into a river or lake. Places with abundant hot springs offer foot baths where the tired hiker can soak her feet for free.
The rules of conduct in the public bath may at first seem puzzling to a foreigner. Unlike Northern European saunas, the onsen is in general separated in a men only and women only part. (Many hotels switch daily which side is for whom, so make no mistake, look out for the red curtain on the door for ladies and blue for men!) But like in the sauna, you’re supposed to go naked inside. At this point, similarities end. The Japanese public bath usually contains a row of small seats and showers, where one is supposed to wash before entering the actual hot spring bath which is shallow. If you sit down inside, the water will reach up to your shoulders. It’s definitely not made for swimming, but soaking. The small towel one is handed when entering is not used for drying, but for scrubbing oneself. The most important rule of all is not to track soap or shampoo into the bath. The towel is kept out of the water as well, it can for example be deposed on one’s head while soaking. Often, the onsen water is scalding hot, so it is advisable to enter slowly. Many people go out after a while to wash themselves a second time or to shampoo their hair.
In the course of our travels in Japan, I have been to a wide variety of hot springs. The most rustic one I’ve been to in Shibu Onsen near Nagano was just a wooden shed built around a pool. There wasn’t even a shower, so you had to scoop out water from the pool with a little bucket to wash. I’ve bathed in what looked like a big barrel in a Tottori hotel, I’ve seen the sunset over the volcano of Miharayama from the rotenburo of the Onsen Hotel on Oshima, and I’ve jumped out of the train just to take a dip in the famous waters of Gero Onsen before continuing my journey an hour later. And I had the smoothest skin ever after bathing in the acidic waters coming from the sulfour-spouting Mt. Iou in Kawayu Onsen, Hokkaido.