Due to its intense volcanic activity, Japan has more hot springs (onsen) than anywhere else in the world, wonderfully described by the Lonely Planet as “Iceland on steroids.” These can be found in towns and cities in the style of public baths, in hot spring resorts or in isolated spots hidden in mountains. They form an integral part of Japanese life and socialising whether with colleagues (I visited many on teacher away-days) friends or families.They were one of the most memorable experiences I had in Japan, not least because of the embarrassment factor of your first onsen experience, where the towel you have to cover your modesty barely lives up to its job! They were also a very cultural experience and a good insight into the Japanese love of rules and rituals.
Being Japan, the onsen experience should ideally be done as a group activity and there are of course certain rituals involved as to what you do before you enter the water and even websites and blogs dedicated to the correct way of using them especially in the traditional guest houses known as Ryokan, where the onsen experience is integral to your stay. Most onsen are segregated by sex so do try and learn the Japanese for men and women (or follow the crowd) but don’t assume this is the case, as I found out when travelling with two male friends and we came upon a remote onsen in the Japanese alps (see photo).
Many first time visitors to Japan feel nervous about using onsen and doing the “right” thing but as long as you make sure you wash and shower before entering the onsen, don’t drop your towel in the water, are not covered with tattoos (some of them refuse entry to people with tattoos), and can put up with some level of staring, it is a recommended experience. There is, in my opinion, nothing more soul-lifting than sitting in an outdoor onsen surrounded by snow and the occasional monkey.
As part of the Satogaeri project, I am going back to Gunma prefecture and will be visiting one of my favourite Hot Spring resorts- Ikaho, a very traditional onsen town nestled in the mountains of Gunma. Gunma’s onsens are correctly perceived as some of the best onsens in Japan. Needless to say, I will be in the onsen quicker than a flash!