The ritual around a Japanese onsen is sacred, but don't let that deter you from immersing yourself in a culture that's rich in history and generously rewarding. 'Onsen' means hot spring in Japanese and there are thousands spread throughout the countryside and major cities in Japan. They are public bathhouses that uses hot spring thermal water stemming from the active volcanic terrain. There is little debate surrounding the therapeutic relief of a Japanese onsen and many bathhouses display a list of injuries and ailments their mineral waters can treat.
An onsen is regarded by many as the quintessential Japanese experience, and rightfully so. For thousands of years, the Japanese have made the ritual of bathing essential to their way of life. You can find an onsen at a public bathhouse, a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on a tatami mat on the floor) and inside many Western hotels. These days, most onsens have separate areas for men and women, except in rural areas where they are still communal.
Most onsens have between five and 10 different baths, allowing you to move around and experience a range of temperatures (from 6-42 degrees Celsius) and minerals. There are usually indoor and outdoor baths and there is something quite invigorating about visiting an onsen in winter. Outside it may be 2 degrees Celsius, and you're immersed in a tub of steaming thermal water. If you're lucky enough it will also be snowing, setting the scene for the best experience you'll ever have.
When you arrive at the bathhouse, remove your shoes before entering the building. Once inside the locker room, all your clothes come off. Yes, that's right, from this point on you are naked and swimsuits are forbidden. This applies to everyone, adults and children alike. So, it's all or nothing except for a little 'modesty' cloth the size of a hand towel. It's good to remember that this is all very natural for the Japanese. If you allow yourself to 'go with the flow,' you'll feel liberated and not at all self-conscious in the process.
There is a washing area at the entrance, and it's imperative you use this before taking a dip. The Japanese bath is not for cleansing; it's exclusively for soaking. Each mini cubicle in the washing area has a bucket and stool, where you sit and use the products provided to wash your hair, body and face.
Once you are clean, make your way to the baths, relax and take in all their goodness. While you move around, be mindful of the etiquette you must follow, in particular with your 'modesty' cloth. Never rinse or wring out the cloth in the water, which is considered rude. When you're not using the cloth place it on your head or around your shoulders; otherwise leave it neatly outside the tub. While there is nothing wrong with talking quietly, the onsen is a place of relaxation and peace, so don’t swim or splash around. This process is an excellent opportunity for children to gain an insight into the graceful behavior of the Japanese, for whom humility and self-control reign supreme.
While the ritual of an onsen adventure may seem somewhat elaborate and overwhelming, I urge you to take the plunge and experience it for yourself. The health-related benefits must mean something, as until 2016 Japanese woman held the world's longest life expectancy record for 25 years in a row. With an average lifespan of 86 years, the saying "there must be something in the water," really could be true.
Where to go
Not all onsens are the same and, depending on the location, there are different benefits to be gained. While an alkaline onsen is popular among women because of its silky effect on the skin, a sulfur-based dip will assist with treating bronchitis, throat irritations and heart disease. For poor circulation and anemia, try an iron onsen and, although a rare find, carbonated water is recommended by doctors for its detoxifying effect. So, it's safe to say with over 3,000 onsens scattered throughout the country, you will always find one to immerse yourself in. When researching where to go, also take note of the minerals inside, not only to treat any aches and pains but also any other specific ailments you may have.
There are direct flights from Shanghai to these major cities in Japan: Tokyo, Osaka, Sapporo, Nagoya, Okinawa, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
[Images via Wikipedia]