Hot Springs and Spa Culture in Japan
The Japanese islands are a hotspot of seismic and geothermal activity (pun intended), which is why the islands are not only scattered with volcanos, but also many, many natural hot springs. The people of Japan have been using naturally warm springs (called onsen, 温泉) to bathe and relax in for centuries upon centuries, and some popular onsen baths in Japan have now been in use for over a millennium! Japanese hot spring culture has had plenty of time to develop and grow, and now there are a variety of ways to enjoy a relaxing, steaming-hot bath in the land of the rising sun.
Go Outdoors! The Rotenburo (露天風呂)
"Rotenburo" simply means any bath located outside in the open air, which means it could refer to either a natural hot spring onsen, or a normal bath. Taking a bath outside might seem a little intimidating to the uninitiated, but onsen-lovers often fall in love with the rotenburo experience. Rotenburo allow bathers to surround themselves with nature and really feel Japan's four seasons while they relax in the water. They're often open throughout the fall and winter, so you can watch red maple leaves drift down from the treetops or even feel the snow melt on your skin, while you keep warm in the piping hot bath. Talk about a unique experience!
Ryokan throughout Japan offer rotenburo like this one
in the Unazuki area of Toyama, and rotenburo fans will choose their destinations based on water quality or natural scenery. Many Japanese onsen rankings place Kinugawa Onsen
in the top three, along with Ito Onsen and Atami Onsen.
Public Baths: The Sento (銭湯)
Sento, or public bathhouses, are often easier to access than onsen, with locations scattered throughout Japan's biggest cities and smallest villages. (Just look at this sento map
of the Kyoto Station area!) That's because, as we all know by now, the term onsen is strictly regulated
and only used for natural hot springs, but sento baths can just use normal water. Even without natural minerals or rumors of special healing effects, bathing in a huge public bath is still a part of Japanese culture, and sento are often busy with locals, dropping in for a bath at their neighborhood sento.
Sento can be fairly basic bathhouses, but if you run into a "Super Sento," you'll probably find more than you bargained for! Check out the listings on SuperSento.com
and you'll find sento like this one in Chichibu, Saitama
, where the baths share the building with shops, restaurants, and "relaxation rooms" full of massage chairs.
Stay the Night: The Ryokan (旅館)
Ryokan are traditional Japanese hotels, ranging from smaller inns to larger establishments, and the emphasis is generally on Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats, luxurious multi-course meals, and communal baths―usually a natural hot spring. The benefit of going to a ryokan onsen is that you get to relax and enjoy your own private room after you finish your bath, enjoy local delicacies, and drift off to sleep without having to drag yourself home first.
All to Yourself: The Kashikiri (貸切)
Not interested in going to a communal bath and sharing the water with others? Prefer a solitary bath, or perhaps a soak with a loved one? Don't worry, there's an option for you too! Kashikiri means private rental, and many onsen facilities (especially ryokan) offer kashikiri onsen that can be rented for private use. Some accommodations even have kashikiri baths built right into the balcony of nicer guest rooms!