Japanese baths are an integral part of Japanese culture. The process is a meditation to many, especially Japanese practicing Shinto and Buddhism. The bath is meant to cleanse the person's soul, so he or she emerges renewed, refreshed, and tranquil. Whether seeking a strictly female onsen in Japan, a male-only facility, or a mixed Japanese bath house, there are thousands of onsens and other types of bath houses to choose from in Japan.
Some people call onsen a spa while others refer to it as a bath or bath house. Essentially, they are all the same thing, but with different properties. Japan is an island with a good deal of geologic activity under the ground that heats up nearby hot springs. Japanese hot baths, onsen, sento, or ofuroya are basically the same. The difference of the onsen is that technically it is heated and fed by a hot spring, while other Japanese baths are usually not. Visiting a bath house during vacations in Japan is an essential part of a deeper understanding of Japanese culture, and is incredibly relaxing at the same time. A hot bath soak is one of the top things to do among tourists, and is an enjoyable, and almost addictive experience.
Japan is home to more than 150 hot springs with almost 14,000 singular springs. They are used by the Japanese as a place to connect, communicate, and relax with friends and as a spiritual practice. Many significant cultural elements have been born of traditional Japanese baths, such a medical rehabilitation as well as recuperation. During festivals, holidays, and special events, Japanese flock to bathhouses. Roten buro, or open-air baths, are extremely popular, too.
There are more than a dozen kinds of Japanese hot baths to choose between. The difference between them is the type and amount of minerals found in the water. These minerals range and include heavy carbon soil springs, salt springs, sulfur springs, and gypsum springs. Though the minerals in a male or female onsen in Japan may differ, the bathing process is the same.
The first step to enjoying Japanese baths is to undress and wash in the room provided. Shampoo, shower gel, and soap are used in the washing area, not in the bathing area. You are expected to enter the communal baths clean. Washing is a part of the ritual so don't rush. Wash each part of your body with soap and warm water. When ready, enter the main bathing area and step into the bath slowly. The water can be quite hot and takes some getting used to. Relax and open all your senses to the experience. The bath opens pores, detoxifies the body, and refreshes circulation among many other health benefits. Onsens are often communal and can be quite large, but small onsens can also be found, sometimes only seating a few people.
Onsens are one of the biggest attractions in Japan. They are found at many resorts as well as on their own, many in remote locations. For the Japanese, they are a part of daily life. Some modern Japanese hot baths are equipped with jet baths and saunas, enhancing the experience. Many Japanese live in small houses or apartments and have no access to a private bath. For this reason, Japanese baths are well utilized by much of the country on a regular basis.
When visiting an onsen ryokan, a regular onsen, or a public bathhouse, be prepared to be the only foreigner. In each male and female onsen in Japan, most people socialize so this can be a good way to meet others. Be prepared to be fully nude as this is the norm. Wash from head to toe with the small towel provided. Repeat to truly impress the others who will be watching your etiquette, though likely not obviously.
There are a huge array of Japanese hot baths to choose between, from the massive Odaiba's Hot Spring Theme Park to smaller onsens near Hakone by Mount Fuji. There are bathhouses all over Tokyo, throughout Hokkaido, and in Sapporo. They are literally all over the country, so there's no reason to miss out on this noteworthy and satisfying cultural encounter.