Onsen, a dip to remember


So... I heard you like mixed baths.

So... I heard you like mixed baths.

There are three vacation spots that appear in almost every male-oriented harem anime series. First, of course, is the beach because all male otaku love to see their favorite female characters in a swimsuit. Second, and the least common, is the mountains, where more often than not, our beloved characters go through a rather childish “courage test”—or become a monster’s next meal. Third, and last, the ubiquitous hot springs—also known as onsen.

More than likely, an anime series will devote at least one episode with its setting at an onsen. And if it does not, angry otaku will start flipping tables—unless it was substituted fora beach scene.  In few cases, there have been anime where the setting was entirely located at an onsen, such as the classic Love Hina, and its horrible sequel that I dare not speak of. The frequent use of hot springs in Japanese anime and manga urges a brief peek into the history as well as the culture behind the onsen.

The history of Japanese onsen is somewhat unknown, but evidently, early Japanese settlements were nearby natural thermal wells.1 Undoubtedly, the early Japanese were already enjoying their hot springs long before Commodore Matthew C. Perry witnessed a communal public bathhouse in Japan or better known as sentō.  What is the difference between an onsen and sentō you may ask? Typically, hot water from an onsen must be from a natural hot spring while the water from a sentō is usually from tap water that is heated.2 For the purposes of this article, we will be sticking with the onsen rather than the sentō.

An anime without an onsen is no anime at all.

An anime without an onsen is no anime at all.

In any case, the main onsen that most people, otaku in particular, associate with is the onsen ryokans, which is basically a Japanaese inn with a hot spring bath. If you ever watched Love Hina or Hanasaku Iroha, you should be familiar of what an onsen ryokan is. If not, you can simply imagine yourself in a traditional Japanese room with tatami floor mats. You are practically in the middle of nowhere since most of the more luxurious onsen ryokans are located in secluded areas at scenic locations by the sea or in the mountains. And more than likely, the only thing you are wearing is a yukata and something underneath if you feel a bit uncomfortable. Historically, these Japanese inns were catered to travelers during the Edo period. By the 19th and 20th century, industrialization as well as urbanization more or less phased out the need foronsen ryokans as it did for bed and breakfasts in the United States.3 Unfortunately, few survive today; however, thanks to some slight modernization as well as a booming interest among the Japanese and foreigners, they are making a comeback in the 21st century.

There are other onsen that are less traditional, and more catered to bathers who are seeking a more bizarre experience. For instance, hot spring amusement parks that include a variety of oddly themed bathhouses have become an interesting phenomenon in Japan.

The Japanese are infatuated with their hot springs. Some reasons are obvious since onsen are a perfect place to relax and seclude oneself from the hubbub of the city. They are known to be therapeutic since many contain natural minerals or chemicals, such as sulfur, sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate and iron. Many Japanese proprietors boast a long list of remedies that their onsen provides ranging from healing aches to chronic skin diseases.4

With the constant appearance of nearly naked anime characters covered in bath towels or steam, and of course, Japan’s long history of the onsen, most people tend to view hot springs as quintessentially Japanese.  In reality, hot springs can be found practically everywhere.

The most well-known civilizations to use geothermal wells for bathing are the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks built public bathhouses in their cities, and bathing became highly ritualized. The bathing process typically followed in this order: cleansing sands, a hot bath, trip to the ancient Greek version of the sauna, a cold dip, and then an oil massage.5

Nothing like a trip to the thermae after a hard day's work.

Nothing like a trip to the thermae after a hard day's work.

The Romans who loved to emulate the Greeks in almost every way, more or less, continued the bathing practices of the Greeks. Across its once impressive empire, the Romans built public bathhouses, also known as thermae. Like the Greeks, the Romans also made the practice of bathing into a fine art. Roman bathers had to follow several methodical steps. First, they undressed and stored their clothes in the apodyterium. Second, they washed themselves in cold water at the frigidarium. Third, they entered the tepidarium where constant radiant heat from the floors and walls pleasantly warmed the body to a comfortable temperature. Fourth, they bathed in the steaming hot water of the caldarium. Lastly, they return to the tepidarium for an oil massage. In some thermae, the process also included a laconium where bathers finished their day at the ancient Roman-style spa by relaxing and sweating—imagine a sauna.6

If the Greek and Roman bathing processes look familiar, it should be. Contemporary Western-style spas can trace their origins to these two civilizations.

Of course, not all Greeks and Romans bathed in hot springs.  A majority of the public bathhouses in Greece and Rome used water from nearby sources, and then heated at the bathhouses, much like the Japanese sentō.  However, there were several Roman thermae built on top of geothermal wells throughout Europe and North Africa, and some even remain relatively intact today.

The city of Pompeii had plenty of hot springs thanks to Mount Vesuvius. And of course, the Romans built their thermae on top of the natural hot springs—only to have Mount Vesuvius drop hot ash on top of the unexpected Romans later on.7

The Roman Baths in the English city of, not surprisingly, Bath, is among the most well-preserved thermae in the world, and it receives a million visitors a year. However, if you plan on booking a trip to Bath to take a dip, then prepare to be disappointed. Sadly, the ancient pool is off limits due to safety concerns; nonetheless, the Thermae Bath Spa, a more contemporary bathhouse with both traditional and modern spa facilities is a short walk from the Roman Baths. Thus, saavy bathers can experience the same water source as the Roman Baths if they are ever in the neighborhood.8

Algeria, a former North African colony of the Roman Empire, is also home of a few standing thermae. The most notable is the Hammam Essalihine built during the Flavian Dynasty.9

The world is practically teeming with hot springs with thousands spread across all continents.

Iceland is known for its hot springs, and the most visited geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon, is the most renowned. Its tundra-like surrounding is breath-taking, but more importantly, the makeup of its bright blue water is quite unique thanks to its mineral combination of silica, sodium, potassium, magnesium, sulfate and blue green algae.10

If you are seeking a more tropical setting, The Lost Spring in New Zealand is a perfect place to enjoy not only the tropics, but waters high in boron, calcium, silica and sulfate.11

Large swaths of the Western U.S., especially California, have a variety of hot springs available to the masses. What is so great about the hot springs in California? They are free! A trip to the Sierra Nevada can take you to a geothermal bath at three popular locations, such as Travertine Hot Spring, Buckeye Hot Spring, and Hot Creek. These hot springs lie within California State Park land, which is why you are free to use them at your leisure; however, you should not expect any amenities—treat it like a camping trip.12 But who cares about amenities when you have an awesome view of the Sierras?

You should double check the nutritional facts for that cup of noodles.

You should double check the nutritional facts for that cup of noodles.

Of course, Japan is not the only Asian nation to have its own geothermal springs. China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and few others are all well-known locations for hot springs enthusiasts. Taiwan, in particular, has the largest concentration of hot springs in the world with over a hundred spread throughout the small island. It also has the greatest variety of springs ranging from the typical mineral-rich hot spring to the peculiar seabed hot spring.13

Although the Japanese may not be the sole proprietor of the hot spring, they do offer their own unique spin. Much like the Greeks and Romans, the Japanese developed a bathing practice that is methodical as well as refined—like Japanese tea ceremonies and martial arts. If you want to avoid embarrassing yourself in public in Japan, then follow the proper etiquette. First, you completely undress and store your clothes. Next, you wash with cold tap water, and then give yourself a thorough scrub—be sure to sit on the stool while doing this. It is considered highly disrespectful if you still have dirt or soap on your body before entering the onsen. Also, it is equally disrespectful if you clean while standing. Once free of any “impurities,” you are safe to enter the onsen for a period of time. Once you are satisfied, you can exit the hot spring, rinse yourself with cold water (although this step can be skipped), dry yourself with a fresh towel, and then enjoy other leisurely activities.14

There is some confusion as to the proper use of bath towels, but it depends on the proprietors. Some owners allow guests to bathe with their towels. Other proprietors are more stringent and prohibit towels in their hot springs, so bathers are encouraged to place their towels on the head or the poolside.15

Although Japanese anime and manga may show you otherwise, it is good practice to keep your head above the water—though this practice is valid for all unfiltered hot springs regardless of location.  In some cases, hot springs are not only rich in minerals, but also a breeding ground for microbial organisms that can possibly kill upon contact. The safety concerns behind the Roman Baths involved an incident of a young girl who swallowed the water, and five days later, she died from amoebic meningitis.16 Unless told otherwise by the proprietor, it is highly recommended that you do not submerge your head in a hot spring. Also, if you happen to have an open cut, sore, or lesions, it is best to avoid hot springs that are unfiltered or not naturally clean.

But of course, our male otaku followers are more intrigued with mixed onsen—a hot spring shared by men and women.  Unfortunately, the chances of scoring with the opposite sex in a hot spring is slim to none as a majority of Japanese women are too embarrassed. Consequently, they avoid mixed baths altogether.17 However, mixed baths are not unique to Japan. You will probably have better luck in a different country.

Clearly, hot springs are ubiquitous, and some of the best and unique places are not even in Japan. Nevertheless, the island nation has its own flair in bathing that mystifies travelers and otaku alike.