Your guide to hot springs in Japan
Hakone nestles close Mount Fuji. It’s part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, an area renowned for its natural beauty and stunning views of Mount Fuji. The area makes an ideal getaway for travelers looking for a break from the buzz and bustle of Tokyo, or to experience the magical relaxation of bathing in hot springs.
Mount Fuji is the symbol of Japan and a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2013. It’s one of around 450 volcanoes that comprise the “Ring of Fire” encircling the Pacific Ocean. The volcano last erupted in 1708 but is classified as active. Its magma chamber warms a number of natural hot springs, which are popular destinations for day trips and overnight excursions from Tokyo.
There is a strong communal bathing culture in Japan, and resort towns tapping the geothermal waters can be found throughout the Japanese archipelago.
The tradition goes back a long way. The first European visitors to Japan, Portuguese and Dutch traders and missionaries who arrived in the 16th century, frequently commented on Japanese bathing habits. The Portuguese missionary João Rodrigues wrote: “It is a general custom in Japan to wash the body at least once or twice a day. [Indeed] the Japanese seem to excel everybody else in this matter, not only in the frequency with which they bathe during the day, but even more so in the cleanliness and dignity which they observe in that place.”
The tradition is just as important today. Bathing is not really about getting clean – it’s a daily relaxation ritual for many Japanese people.
Onsen by the numbers
Japanese hot springs: 26,796
Hakone hot springs: 17
Onsen hotels/inns: 3,023
Overnight onsen visitors/year: 137,097,634
Hakone onsen water flow/day: 25,000 tons
Japanese onsen culture has its origins in Shinto purification rituals, which combined physical and spiritual cleansing. Initially, onsen were reserved for traveling samurai, priests or local residents.
Hot springs are associated with health benefits in many countries, and Japan is no exception. This is often to do with the high mineral content the waters tend to have due to the ability of hot water to hold more dissolved solids.
Hot spring waters are held to relieve skin problems, promote weight loss and cure virtually every known ailment.
Public baths are fast-disappearing in Japanese cities, as most people are now able to bathe at home, but the Japanese continue to be enthusiastic onsen visitors. Japanese businesspeople even praise onsen baths as a way of breaking down communication barriers.
Men and women bathe separately, though small children can bathe with either parent. Many hotels and inns offer a private bath, which you may need to book in advance. Swimsuits are not permitted.
Bathers wash their bodies before getting into the bath, as the water is communal. There is normally a washing area adjacent to the bathing pool, and soap and shampoo are provided.
Often there are both indoor and outdoor bathing options. The outdoor pool is called a rotenburo. It offers a chance to admire the view of autumn leaves, snowy hillsides, Mount Fuji or the stars, depending on the time of day and the season.
Text: Roberto De Vido
Published: May 20, 2017