Onsen, The Japanese Bath
Sweating, soaking and health
For most Japanese people Onsen is not a regular part of life, but essentially a respite from it. In the Japanese philosophy, Onsen should be the diametric opposite of everything in normal, hectic day-to-day life. Onsen blends the mysticism and spirituality of the East into the traditional sweat bath practice, lending it a Zen, meditative quality.
An Onsen is a Japanese hot spring. The Onsen is basically a Japanese public bath (Sento) with natural hot spring water. Its history and etiquette are closely related to the Sento (public bath). It has been practised for thousands of years and plays a major part in Japanese culture and lifestyle, providing a socially acceptable relief from the pressures of the contemporary Japanese twelve-hour work ethic. It represents an opportunity for the Japanese to melt down the hierarchical nature of society through mutual nakedness and intimacy. There are around 3,000 Onsen resorts in Japan and most Japanese are Onsen lovers by nature, if not by culture.
Outdoors tubs (Rotemburo) use natural hot water from volcanic springs. A wide variety of extravagant spas, artificial waterfalls and saunas often compliment them. The core difference between Onsen and Sento (communal bathhouse) is that the Onsen water must come from a volcanic spring even if it is later reheated, whereby a Sento uses ordinary heated water.
The Japanese generally prefer Onsen water, as they believe it has healing powers depending on its mineral properties and content. Onsens often provide several types of baths, differentiated by the presence of different minerals, and their properties.
The number one etiquette rule for both Onsen and Sento is to wash your hair, scrub your body and rinse yourself thoroughly before you enter the hot water. The Japanese bath is not meant for cleansing, it is exclusively for soaking. Washing is vital in a public bath. Entering the Onsen while unwashed or soapy is an offence that causes major uproar. It is equally important at home, where the whole family often uses the same bath water.
If you're clean and showered and don't feel the need to wash, you can use the scoop provided to splash water over your genitals and feet, thus symbolically cleansing them.
The key features of the Onsen are by far the water and the bathing facility. The next most important issue for Japanese guests is food. A good Onsen inn, or Ryokan offers a special evening meal to compliment the Onsen. Ryokans generally tend to impose strict eating hours for the evening meal (6pm) and the baths are often deserted at this hour. It's a great time to hit the tub.
Massage and other services are often offered at the Ryokan. However, they are only peripheral and complimentary to the core Onsen. Some of the most famous Onsens in Japan are the most rustic and Spartan ones.
Going to Onsen with a colleague will certainly help break down some of the hierarchical stiffness inherent to Japanese work life. This is probably due to the intimacy of being naked together in a pool of hot water. However, generally most Onsen visitors are not work colleagues but rather friends, couples and families.
You often see a father or mother introducing a small child to Onsen for the first time. Very small children of either sex up to about three to four years old can be found in both male and female baths. Mixed sex bathing is a tradition that persists in the more rural areas of Japan and exclusively amongst the older generations. Wearing swimsuits is quite rightly forbidden in most of the better Onsens. Their philosophy is simple: If nudity offends you, have your bath at home.
Onsen are places to relax and meditate. Although the baths are usually quite silent, you often hear the odd sigh or grunt of satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with talking quietly to friends or partners. People in the same bath or pool may well start a conversation with you. However for the Japanese to initiate conversation with a stranger is quite unusual.
Benefits of Onsen
Onsen water is believed to have healing powers depending on its mineral properties and content.
To reap the full benefit of the healing powers of the hot spring water, it is better not to shower or use hot water after getting out of the tub. It's important to check with the staff at the Onsen about the effects of the particular minerals on your body.
At some Onsens the water is drinkable. However others have water with strong minerals and could be toxic if ingested. Generally it is safer not to drink the Onsen water.
Here is a great relaxation tip for you. Take a complete rest for at least 30 minutes after Onsen. You will feel totally refreshed and rejuvenated.
The extremely acid hot spring Onsen water is believed to ease neuralgia, alleviate muscle pain and the symptoms of chronic skin disease. It also relieves chronic fatigue and stress. Since ancient times, Onsen water has been renowned to help maintain a beautiful skin.
In addition to its other health and beauty benefits, the hot springs energise the metabolism. The Onsen experience is also known to calm nerves and put the bather in a relaxed, meditative state.
To maximise the effects and the pleasure of the experience, bathers acclimatise their bodies to the hot water by pouring it over their bodies, before easing themselves into the scalding Onsen.History of bathing
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