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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
For a Japanese perspective on onsen I would recommend this YouTube video by Ishii Noburu, posted in March 2020.