Onsen are thought to have been used by Japanese for over 3,000 years and Hakone has been one of Japan’s most famous onsen resorts for centuries. Located just an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo by train, it is popular with Japanese and international tourists alike.
Onsen are mineral rich hot springs used for bathing and relaxation. The term literally translates as ‘hot spring’ but a pool must meet certain requirements before it can officially be called an onsen. The Onsen Law states that the spring water must be at least 25 degrees in temperature and contain certain levels of hydrogen ion, fluorine ion, sulphur or one of the other 19 listed elements. However, the water of each onsen will have its own unique composition and no two will be exactly alike.
There are over 3,000 hot springs located across Japan, mostly clustered around its volcanic belt and most of the hot springs come from heated groundwater near volcanoes. However, not all of the springs are heated by volcanic activity; some area heated by diastrophism or radioactive elements underground. Under southern Kanto there is a layer of warm water, heated by the Earth’s core, which has been borne into in order for the water to be pumped into hot spring baths.
It is said that the health benefits of onsen were first discovered when animals were seen bathing in the waters to heal their wounds. Samurai warriors then began to use onsen to treat their battle scars. It is believed that bathing in the mineral-rich water can alleviate many ailments including neuralgia, myalgia, rheumatism, dermatosis and even high blood pressure. Some onsen, in fact, are famous for their medicinal benefits.
While onsen continue to be used for their health benefits, a number of ‘novelty’ onsen have opened across Japan and are particularly popular with tourists. Hakone’s Yunessun spa hosts 23 unique hot spring baths including beautifying baths containing wine, coffee, green tea and even sake.
Hotel Hoeiso in Hakone offers roten-buro, an open-air onsen surrounded by nature, which can be booked for private baths. Located on the banks of a clear stream and enveloped by the mountains of the Hakone-Yumoto area, it is a tranquil and almost mystical setting. During the day visitors can listen to the chirping of the birds and enjoy the surrounding views. At night, bathers might hear nothing more than owls hooting and the burbling of the stream. The waters of this hot spring have one of the highest levels of alkaline in the Hakone area, making it very good for the skin. The bath is filled by a pure hot spring and overflow water is discharged into the river. To preserve the natural environment, the outdoor baths here do not have showers or soap.
A BRIEF OUTLINE OF ONSEN ETIQUETTE
Make sure to take your ‘outside’ shoes off before you enter the establishment. Like most places in Japan, you will find cubby holes at the entrance with slippers for wearing inside. Take your shoes off before you enter, pop them in the cubby hole and wear the slippers as soon as you step inside. If there are no cubby holes then you must leave your shoes outside, pointing away from the building.
There is usually an entrance fee. If the onsen is in a ryokan or shukubo, check with reception for its opening times and whether or not there is an additional fee.
Some onsen are mixed gender (konyoku – 混浴), however most have separate baths for men and women. Private onsen can also be found and usually have to be booked in advance. Some onsen have only one bath and alternate sessions for men and women – these sessions are not always the same so do check before entering! It would be useful to learn the kanji for ‘men’ (男) and ‘women’ (女) before you go, as these signs will be displayed on the door.
Onsen pools are not for washing. Before you enter you will be expected to leave your clothes in a locker and to wash yourself (including your hair) at the stools and showers provided. Not all onsen provide shampoo and soap but you may be able to purchase these items when you check in. Even though you have washed your hair, you should tie your hair up to keep it out of the water and never put your head under the water in the onsen.
Garments are considered to pollute the purity of the volcanic waters and so are forbidden in most onsen. If bathing naked with strangers is not your thing, private baths (Kashikiri-buro) can be booked in some ryokans and shukubo. Some of the bigger onsen (super-sento) also allow bathers to wear swimsuits, although they are are generally considered to be ‘theme park’ style of baths that use heated tap water and are therefore not really the traditional experience.
If you are staying at a ryokan or shukubo, you will probably find a yuakata (a type of kimono) in your room. You can wear this to walk to and from the onsen (as well as anywhere else).
In Japan, tattoos are traditionally associated with the Yakuza (members of a transnational organised crime syndicated that originates in Japan). In the Edo period (1603 to 1868) criminals were punished with tattoos and later, in the Meiji period (1868-1912) they became illegal. Tattoos were only legalised in 1948 by occupying forces and the stigma remains, resulting in tattooed foreigners (as well as locals) being banned from onsen, pools and even ryokans. Slowly tattoos are becoming more accepted in areas that are popular with tourists but do check before you go flashing your body art, as you could offend or even frighten the locals. If you are inked and really want to try an onsen, try booking a private bath instead.
Respect others using the onsen. Step in, don’t jump (or dive) and relax quietly. Don’t splash or swim in the baths. Chances are you will be sharing your bath with locals and they take their onsen very seriously.
Women should not use onsen while on their period or after child birth, both for etiquette and health reasons.
Be careful with the heat. Onsens are hot and it is easy not to notice that you are overheating. Check the temperature of the water before you slip in (even if other bathers don’t), make sure you are hydrated before your bath (and have gone to the toilet if you need to, as the facilities are rarely in the same place) and cool down in the cold plunge pool (or alternatively at the showers) if you feel you need to.