The elemental allure of onsen

Japan is synonymous with onsen – hot (mineral) springs. As it should be. Volcanoes, which Japan has in abundance, play a key role in the formation of hot springs. Fire (magma) heats water. Earth adds minerals. Nature provides a magical setting with most hot springs originally being in the open air. People traditionally bathed communally. The very hot water provides relief from the humidity in summer and warmth in winter. These characteristics bring many health benefits. It is no wonder that hot springs are such an important part of Japanese culture. Onsen also draw many tourists to Japan with one-third of visitors recently indicating it was one of their main reasons for travelling. I can understand the elemental allure.

Beppu was the first city in Japan that I specifically visited to experience onsen. Found on the island of Kyushu, Beppu is famous for its hot springs and is a very popular destination. This spring is one of the ‘hells’  of Beppu and has a temperature of 100 degrees celsius.  It is not for bathing in! Hot spring water comes in different colours. With the red fence surrounding it I found this one particularly attractive.

I really enjoyed my visit to Beppu even though a Japanese friend had told me it was too touristy. On my first day I walked from sea level into the hills to trace the source of the steam I could see emanating from the earth. On the way I passed through some interesting neighbourhoods and a lovely park. Local residents were going about their business and were very friendly. It’s a place to which I would like to return. Another attraction is that Kunisaki Peninsula is easily accessible by vehicle from Beppu. Dominated by an extinct volcano, and with a long and fascinating history, the peninsula is another place with an important story to tell. That’s for another time.

After an enjoyable climb in the hills of Beppu I discovered this vent which was supplying heated water to local houses. The continuous column of steam demonstrated an intimate connection to Earth’s elemental energy. The sign warns of danger. I certainly wasn’t tempted to get over the fence. For those interested in seeing the steam in action, I have posted a video on Instagram – it can be found at #elementaljapan

This onsen symbol is found all over Japan. Here it is embedded in a footpath in Beppu. I saw many of these symbols on my walks around the city. After Yellowstone in the USA, Beppu has the second largest discharge of hot spring water in the world. It is not surprising therefore that approximately 10% of the onsens in Japan are found in Beppu. (Source of statistics: welcomekyushu.com)

From Beppu I travelled to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. Here I spent several days in the presence of Sakurajima – the active volcano that defines the city in many ways. Around 270 hot spring sources are found in Kagoshima City with many more in surrounding areas. Ibusuki, which is a short drive from Kagoshima, is famous for its hot sand bathing. Another elemental and energising pastime.

This was the stunning view from my apartment in Kagoshima. The day I arrived Sakurajima emitted a large cloud of ash. This is a frequent occurrence – the one I witnessed was a minor event it seems in the big scheme of things. These eruptions means that ash often falls on Kagoshima. This is one of the reasons why local residents have a love/hate relationship with the volcano. Like many other places in Japan the relationship between volcanoes and onsen is a big part of the ‘love’ side of the equation.

Taking one of the many ferries to Sakurajima I was able to luxuriate in a hot spring for feet on the lower slopes of the volcano.  Foot baths are a great idea as you can experience some of the benefits of hot springs without completely disrobing. They are found in many places. There is even one at Kagoshima airport I’ve read – the only one at an airport in Japan.

Heading even further south I travelled to Yakushima for two days. There were many elemental reasons to travel by high speed ferry from Kagoshima to this small island. For one it is the wettest place in Japan. It also is home to some very old cedar trees and magical forests that inspired the Studio Ghibli movie ‘Princess Mononoke‘. To my delight the island also turned out to be the home of one of the nicest onsen I have experienced – located at the edge of the ocean where the tides determine when it can be used. Fortunately we visited there just at the right time.

The local Yakushima residents very generously share the onsen by the sea with visitors. There is a small image of it in the top left corner of the sign. It was magical sitting in a hot spring with ocean waves lapping on the rocks just a few metres away. Very elemental.

I don’t have any photos of the Hirauchi Undersea Spa itself as people were bathing at the time. This is the only mixed bathing experience I’ve had. Unlike all other onsen I’ve bathed in, special clothes were worn in the water. That made me even more grateful that the locals were happy to share. If tourists weren’t there I’m sure they would bathe naked. Hopefully they do when they are left on their own. The Spa is a simple sulfur one, said on the sign to be efficient for treating rheumatism, skin disease etc. The healing properties of hot mineral springs has been a major attraction over the long history of onsen in Japan. More recently the relaxing properties of hot springs have become more important for many visitors than the curative role.

This map shows some of the major onsen sites on the four main islands of Japan, including Beppu. It is very generalised and many areas are not listed. The reason for including it is to give a sense of the spread of onsen across Japan. Experiencing onsen in Yakushima (further south than this map shows) and at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido, plus many inbetween, has been one of the great pleasures of exploring the elements in Japan. The difference in the minerals in the water at various onsen was quite noticeable. (Source: Info Map Japan).

To help ensure that certain standards were adhered to, the properties of onsen were set out in the Hot Spring Law (Onsen Ho) enacted in 1948. To be called an onsen the spring water has to be 25 degrees C or above and contain at least one of a set of specified minerals at a given percentage.  It was this law that legally defined hot springs as onsen – prior to that terms like hot springs or mineral springs were the norm. I only realised that onsen had come into relatively recent use when I looked at publications like Basil Chamberlain’s 1891 book ‘Things Japanese‘ and could not find onsen in the index. He calls them mineral springs. Likewise the book ‘We Japanese‘, published in 1934, calls them hot springs or mineral spas.

The term onsen has certainly stuck since it became the legal definition of hot springs in 1948. There are thousands of onsen in Japan. This screen shot, which was generated using onsen in the search engine, shows but a few. They look very inviting, and elemental – to be enjoyed in all sorts of weather. Relaxing in the heated water surrounded by snow is reported to be a highlight. Loopholes in the 1948 law mean that today not all onsen are what they seem to be. In particular some of the therapeutic benefits may not be what is advertised. So it pays to do some homework.

Most of the images in the screen shot above are of onsen in rural settings, some of which have been visited for centuries. A modern take on onsen as a theme park, from the book ‘Clueless in Tokyo‘, is shown here. This book is designed to answer questions that foreign visitors may have when they come to Japan. I really like the illustrations and the author’s sense of humour. The instructions are a good place to start for those with no prior knowledge of the etiquette of onsen. Following the rules makes the bathing experience enjoyable for all involved.

This 2015 book is also set in Tokyo. As well as onsen it discusses sento (a public communal bath house where customers pay for entrance; these can also be called onsen if the water comes from a natural hot spring) and furo (the private bath found in people’s homes). The book provides a personal and intriguing perspective on bathing in Japan. Much of the story is told through the eyes of the author’s grandfather who visited Japan to see the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. It is informative, bilingual, quirky and easy to read. Another excellent book published in 1985 is ‘Furo. The Japanese Bath‘ by Peter Grilli and Dana Levy that delves into bathing in Japan in detail.

The number and nature of onsen in Japan has changed, especially over the last few decades. The yellow book above includes an interview with one of the last sansuke who filled many roles in the public baths. This included rinsing the back or hair of customers, both men and women. The sansuke also made fires to boil water – this was required when the water didn’t originate in a hot spring. As with onsen, we come across fire and water again – two fundamental elements associated with bathing in Japan. The last person in Tokyo with the diverse skills of the sansuke retired in 2013. They may still be found elsewhere.

The elemental allure of onsen is one aspect that has stayed constant over their long and fascinating history. There is so much more that could be written about onsen and the elements. For example, some hot springs draw their heat from radioactive elements underground rather than from volcanoes. Then there are the use of hot springs by other animals such as snow monkeys, bears and birds. As with all my posts the intention is to share my impressions of the different dimensions of elemental Japan. Onsen are a very important part of the story and one I look forward to exploring further.

2 thoughts on “The elemental allure of onsen

  1. I can see now that there are 1001 reasons to visit Japan and I’m not surprised that visiting Onsen is high on the list of many who travel to Japan. I definitely look forward to visiting one or two in our trip in April. I enjoyed reading about your experiences of Onsen and your thoughts and insights on the subject.

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    • Onsen are definitely on the list for our rescheduled trip to Japan in April, including visiting the oldest in Japan. One of the many memorable activities on our itinerary! As you say, it’s not surprising that onsen are so popular with visitors to Japan. A Tasmanian friend of mine, who ended up moving to Japan, said that onsen were one of major reasons he decided to make the switch. I can understand that. 🙂

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