Onsen - Japanese hot spring - Onsen etiquette, famous Japanese Onsen, Onsen Characteristics and Onsen Pictures.

An onsen (温泉, onsen) is a Japanese hot spring. Many springs are developed, having an associated outdoor bath (rotenburo (露天風呂, rotenburo) or notenburo (野天風呂, notenburo)) and/or indoor bath. Baths may be either public run by a municipality or private (uchiyu (内湯, uchiyu)) often run by a local inn (ryokan (旅館, ryokan)) or B&B (minshuku (民宿, minshuku)).

Onsens are often found out in the countryside, and are a major tourist attraction drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of 'naked communion' (裸の付き合い, hadaka no tsukiai)) for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed homey atmosphere of an onsen inn.

Japanese TV often features programs where the hosts visit a local onsen, interview the wife of the owner (okamisan 女将さん), and try out some of the local delicacies.

The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the Chinese character 湯 (for hot water).

Dogo Onsen, Japan -- by jpatokal

Onsen Characteristics

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 sento, indoor public bath houses in the city 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 (utaseyu 打たせ湯).

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 or stainless steel.

Many bathers come for an hour or so to soak in the waters, even if they do not stay. 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.

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. It is not unusual to see a father or mother introducing a small child to the onsen for the first time. Very small children of either gender up to about 10 years old can often be seen in both male and female baths. Mixed-gender bathing is a tradition that persists at onsen in the more rural areas of Japan, although these days there is usually a separate bath for women only in addition to the mixed bath, or a time period designated for female-only bathing.

Japanese Snow Monkeys in Onsen
Snow Monkeys in Jigokudani Onsen. Picture by Yosemite.

Onsen etiquette

Ensuring Cleanliness
At an onsen, as at a sento, 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 little stools to sit on, for showering and shampooing.

Many traditional onsen out in the countryside have rules forbidding wearing swimsuits into the bath, saying that these make it harder to clean. Some modern onsen in larger towns though have more of a waterpark atmosphere, and actively encourage the use of swimsuits, especially in their mixed baths.

Onsen guests generally bring a small towel with them to use as a washcloth. 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. However, some people place their folded towels on top of their heads.

Onsens are generally considered a respite from the hectic pace of life and consequently they are usually fairly quiet. However, sometimes bathers will engage in conversation in this relaxed situation.

Recent controversy
In recent years, there has been some controversy over the exclusion of foreigners (or non-ethnic Japanese) from entering hot springs.[18] This issue was highlighted in February 2001 when Debito Arudou and two co-plaintiffs sued Yunohana Onsen in Otaru, Hokkaido, for refusing service to customers based on race. Yunohana Onsen lost the lawsuit in November 2002.[19] See the related discussion in the sento article.

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Japanese Culture