An Insider’s Look at Japan: Onsen
Obligatory Hot Springs Episode!
If there’s one thing that I knew I had to do while in Japan, it was visit a real onsen, or hot spring. Luckily for me, there were actually quite a few in the region of Akita where I was staying, and the particular one that I visited was apparently one of the best. For a first impression, I’ll definitely say that it’ll be very hard to beat, and it was one of the most relaxing and revitalizing experiences I had in Japan.
Our trip up to the onsen was slightly harrowing, as we drove through heavy snow with flakes the size of quarters falling the whole way there. Once we got closer to the area itself, we had to slowly wind up a steep mountain path in a van that we’d rented, so it wasn’t easy. It was plenty cold, but the mountain air was refreshing, and it was really beautiful up there. Sadly, the outdoor spring was under construction, so we had to use an indoor one. It was still nice either way.
Before actually entering an onsen, you have to bathe in order to be allowed in. This is customary for public and home baths as well, because the Japanese believe that the bath is a place to relax, not to wash. It’s also more sanitary, as you’re washing before getting into a huge bath with other people. My brother and father were the only other two with me, and we had the onsen to ourselves, which was nice. The wash area was in the same room as the onsen, and consisted of a towel rack, a tap, and a stool in the wooden deck just around the bath, which is pretty typical of a traditional Japanese bathing area. The rinse water was FREEZING. I mean, I expected the water to be cold and all, but this was nuts. We could only get a few splashes on at a time before we entered, but we were able to make it work well enough.
The spring water itself was quite hot, and took some getting used to, but it was very relaxing. The steam and the heat was a welcome relief from the cold weather outside, and any fatigue I’d felt that day practically melted away. The water in this onsen, like many others in Japan, was rich with minerals. In our case, I believe it was sulphur, as it smelled faintly like it. The minerals actually turned one of my father’s rings from a silver color to more of a gold temporarily. The high mineral content is believed by the Japanese to have medical benefits, curing everything from aches to diseases with a good soak. Whether this actually works or not, it does feel nice to just sit, soak, and relax for a while. The heat also helped clear my sinuses, too.
So there you have it, a real trip to a real onsen! It was totally worth it, and if I can, I’ll hit one up the next time I visit. The mountain setting was refreshing and traditional, the onsen was relaxing as hell, and overall I wish I had more time to spend there. Hopefully I can see an outdoor onsen next time; I’m sure it would be even better.