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Winter Getaway: Soaking in Japanese Hot Springs

December 31, 2009
by Sarah Amandolare
Hot springs have long been intrinsic to Japanese culture, initially used for medicinal reasons, and now offering residents and visitors a steaming respite from the outside world. A winter getaway to an onsen, which literally means “hot spring” in Japanese, is a perfect way to experience snowy scenery while keeping toasty warm.

The Roots of Onsen

According to the Japan Times, hot springs “played more of a curative role” before Japan adopted Western medical science during the Meiji Era, beginning in the 1860s. Buddhist monks encouraged bathing in onsen for better health, and wounded soldiers often “sought out the curative effects” of the hot waters in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Melissa Pearce of The Sydney Morning Herald says an onsen visit “is probably the quintessential Japanese experience.” There are onsen suiting any personality, including remote hot springs “reached only on foot” and large “multiplex therapeutic resorts” in Tokyo. Pearce describes some of Japan’s high-end ryokans, which are guesthouses near hot springs.

Onsen Modernization and Tradition

To attract younger travelers and visitors, many Japanese onsen ryokans are incorporating modern amenities, such as “liquid crystal TVs and programmable toilets,” according to The New York Times. But traditional elements and “ancient ideas” are still fundamental to onsen ryokans; guests “enjoy long soaks in the hot spring baths, often with a view of the outdoors, in a remote, natural setting,” and luxuriate in multi-course, seasonal meals. The natural materials that have always been used to construct onsen ryokans remain in place, encouraging “traditional behavior,” architect and designer Hiroshi Ebisawa told The New York Times.

Washing up is one traditional behavior required at some onsen ryokans. In an article for Travel and Leisure, Pia Ulin describes the pre-soak process: “you sit on a stool, douse yourself with hot and cold spring water from wooden buckets, and scrub with a rough towel,” Ulin writes. With her daughter, Ulin visited a mid-range onsen ryokan, which fell somewhere between the “insanely expensive” and quite basic accommodations available throughout Japan. Regardless of price, it seems possible to leave an onsen feeling refreshed; Ulin and her daughter left “two very clean, serene girls.”

Unexpected Visitors

In addition to foreign and Japanese bathers at onsen ryokans, wild macaques—Japanese monkeys—also frequent the hot springs. Boasting white fur and red faces, the creatures particularly enjoy onsen during wintertime in Yamanouchi, which is located 45 minutes from Nagano city. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the so-called “snow monkeys” enjoy bathing in a very human way, drawing fascinated, wide-eyed tourists. Just be careful not to look back at them too intently, warns the Chronicle, as “these normally placid primates can quickly turn aggressive.”

Finding an Onsen

Secret Japan has a database of 129 onsen throughout Japan, including outside baths and mixed baths (baths allowing male and female bathers). Each listing has a photo, description of scenery, and details of amenities, as well as a link to the onsen’s official Web site and a phone number.

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