Onsen in Japan: Everything You Need to Know & Where to Find One
There are many reasons to fall in love with Japan and without a doubt, indulging in a natural hot spring is one of them! Known as ‘onsen’, the islands of Japan are blessed with numerous naturally occurring hot springs – a positive consequence of being one of the world’s most volcanic countries! On this page you will find the following information:
The estimates vary greatly – and in truth the numbers are unknown – but we can say, that Japan is home to more than 25,000 hot springs with over 3000 designated onsen areas. In truth, the total is likely to be much higher given that onsen are naturally occurring and frequently bubble to surface unseen or undocumented in forests, mountains and by the sides of rivers with many of Japan’s best and most historic onsen towns found in our home region of Nagano and Central Japan.
WHAT IS AN ‘ONSEN’?
In Japanese, the world ‘onsen’ refers to natural hot springs that occur naturally throughout the country. To qualify as an onsen, it must be a naturally occurring source of hot water, mineral water or water vapour, with a subterranean source, a minimum temperature of 25C and at least one of nineteen mineral elements. As noted above, there are thousands of onsen dotted across Japan, identified by the onsen symbol – ♨ – or the character for ‘hot water’, pronounced ‘yu’ – 湯. Onsen play a fundamental role in Japanese society, with many Japanese attending an onsen every week if not every day.
Japan’s native religion of Shintoism – which has a strong focus on nature worship – has long placed importance on purification using water, as a central act of faith; something reinforced with the introduction of Buddhism which also promotes the virtue of bathing as form of both physical and spiritual cleansing. As such, onsen have long been sought-out for their curative and healing properties. When a source was discovered, a bath would be constructed to make use of the endless supply of hot water. Around these, guesthouses known as ‘ryokan’ developed as holistic retreats and over time, the areas with a large number of sources grew into onsen towns.
Still popular for their medicinal properties, onsen have more recently been sought-out for pure relaxation – hugely popular for both Japanese and international visitors. Though they were typically mixed gender in the past, since the mid-19th century onward most onsen have been segregated for men and women, a place to relax and unwind by yourself or with colleagues, friends, and family.
ONSEN ETIQUETTE: DO’S, DONT’S & TATTOOS
One of the most enjoyable activities you can enjoy while in Japan, entering an onsen for the first time can be a little intimidating. Rest assured it’s nothing to worry about. The rules and etiquette of onsen are in place to ensure cleanliness and the comfort of guests and it won’t take you long to get the hang of it. Our ‘Onsen Etiquette: Do’s, Don’ts & Benefits’ page includes everything you need to know about entering a hot spring, what to avoid and how to just relax and enjoy, with some important information about the rules around tattoos and how to find a tattoo-friendly onsen.
THE MANY BENEFITS OF ONSEN
Japanese have long sought-out hot springs for their healing properties, purification and more recently, for pure relaxation. The benefits of bathing in Japan’s hot springs are well-known and varied, dependent on the specific characteristics of each onsen. Our ‘Onsen Etiquette: Do’s, Don’ts & Benefits’ page introduces the most common types of water you’ll find and the positives of each. Just remember, whether you’re in need for some medicinal magic or ritual purification, if nothing else, the biggest benefit of any onsen is relaxation.
BEST ONSEN TOWNS IN NAGANO & CENTRAL JAPAN
Our home region of Nagano and Central Japan is home to some of the country’s most historic and best onsen towns. Our ’20 Best Onsen Towns in Nagano & Central Japan’ page tells you where to find them and why you should visit – so hop to it and enjoy the best that the region has to offer.
BOOK AN ONSEN GUESTHOUSE IN NAGANO
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are the region’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator. As a registered travel agent, we can arrange accommodation at the best onsen guesthouses in Nagano and Central Japan while also offering a full suite of services including tours, transport, ski packages and more! Our ‘Book an Onsen Guesthouse in Nagano’ page is a great place to start when looking for recommendations of where to stay once you’re here. We hope to see you soon in Nagano!