Japan Onsen and Hot Spring Map Guide

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Exactly what is an Onsen?

Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese word for hot springs; quite literally, at that, since 温 on is "warm" and 泉 sen is "spring". Japan is a very volcanically active country, resulting not only in frequent earthquakes, but also an abundance of hot springs throughout the archipelago. Traditionally, onsen were located outdoors, although a large number of inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Onsen by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs. Onsen should be differentiated from sentō, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water. Major onsen resort hotels often feature a wide variety of themed spa baths and artificial waterfalls in the bathing area (打たせ湯).

man kanji
Man - otoko
woman kanji
Woman - onna

Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, marble or granite, while indoor tubs may be made with tile, acrylic glass or stainless steel. Many bathers come for only an hour or so to soak in the waters. Food also plays an important part in the attraction of a particular inn. While other services like massages may be offered, the main reason most people visit the onsen is to enjoy the baths.

Traditionally, men (top kanji) and women (bottom kanji) bathed together at the onsen, as they did at the sentō, but single-sex bathing has steadily become the established custom since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period. Mixed-sex bathing persists at some onsen in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate "women-only" baths or different hours for the two sexes, although young children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths. People often travel to onsen with work colleagues, as the relaxed and open atmosphere helps to break down some of the hierarchical stiffness inherent in Japanese work life. However, most visitors to onsen are not work groups but friends, couples and families.

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Onsen Etiquette and Instructions

Onsen Baskets

Onsen are usually divided into separate male and female baths with separate changing rooms, though you may find the odd exception. Identify your bath by using the handy kanji key (above right) on the noren curtains hanging in front of the door. Men's baths are also usually colorcoded blue, while women are red. Guests remove their clothes and leave them in either a locker or baskets (as per photo). If there are only baskets, you may want to leave your valuables with the management. Upon entering the onsen guests are expected to wash their bodies and rinse themselves thoroughly before entering the hot water. The indoor baths have faucets with removable shower heads and stools to sit on, for showering and shampooing. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is considered unacceptable. Guests are not normally allowed to wear swimsuits in the baths. However, some modern onsen having more of a waterpark atmosphere require their guests to wear a swimming suit in their mixed baths.

Get slowly into the bath so as not to disturb fellow bathers. It may be very hot, so it’s wise to test the water first. If it’s very hot, ease yourself in slowly and keep as still as possible once immersed, this way you don’t feel the heat so much. Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a wash cloth. The towel can also provide a modicum of modesty when walking between the washing area and the baths. Some onsen allow one to wear the towel into the baths, while others have posted signs prohibiting this, saying that it makes it harder to clean the bath. In this latter case, people normally set their towels off to the side of the water when enjoying the baths, or place their folded towels on top of their heads. Onsen are generally considered a respite from the hectic pace of life and consequently they are usually fairly quiet. However, sometimes bathers will engage in quiet conversation in this relaxed situation.

Don’t stay in too long if you feel a little light headed, get out and relax for a few minutes before getting back in. After the onsen there is usually no need to shower as the mineral content is good for the skin. However one may still shower if wanted. You can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyûkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine, nearby. Sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap. That's what it's there for!

Onsen Warnings & Hassles

If you have tattoos there may be a problem gaining entrance. As with many aspects the locals will often take an easier line with foreigners and allow you in if the tattoos are not terribly obvious. However, that will not always be the case. Onsen that are municipally owned should not present a problem as they have a duty to let all tax-paying citizens in. The original reason for this ban was to keep out ヤクザ (yakuza), or members of other 暴力団体 (violence groups). Bottom line: some places will make accommodation for you, others won't. Be prepared to be denied and please don't get offended if you do. Example of tattoos banned signs (taken elsewhere in Japan) are as follows. The text on the left says 入れ墨禁止 (irezumi kinshi, or tattoos forbidden).

Japanese onsen sign - no tattoos no tattoos in the Japanese onsen

A special note for women: it's regrettable and annoying, but if you happen to be on your period, don't bother even going into an onsen bathing area. Blood plays a significant role in what is considered taboo in Japan, so it's simply it will just not your time for an onsen experience.

Also, in very rare cases elsewhere in Japan, some onsen just deny entry to foreigners full stop. This is actually illegal - but one must decide whether it's worth the hassle of arguing or simply moving onto the next place instead. Note: no cases of such discrimination are known of in Myoko, Madarao, Kamiyamada, Togakushi, etc. so please enjoy the local onsen.

Onsen Town, Japan

Japan Onsen Areas and Hot Spring Towns Map

View the Japan Onsen map - from Hokkaido to Kyushu on a larger scale

Descriptor: Japan Onsen is the The English Onsen Guide. On this page you will find Onsen FAQ, Onsen Etiquette, Warnings and Hassles

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