The Japanese bathing ritual remains as sacred today as it has been for thousands of years, since the time when animists worshipped nature in all its forms. It is well known that long before the advent of indoor plumbing, most Japanese cleansed themselves daily in communal bath houses or sento, which were usually fed by natural springs.
Cleansing the spirit and warding off disease are the reputed benefits claimed by some 3,000 onsen or hotspring baths dotted throughout the mountainous islands of Japan. The term onsen can refer both to a single facility or an entire town or hotspring area. Onsen range in size from small for one person to enormous pools that can accommodate over 100 bathers at one time.
The baths are measured in tatami mats, a traditional Japanese unit of measurement based on the size of the straw mats used in the home. A variety of hotsprings can be found throughout the country, comprising uchi-buro (indoor baths), rotenburo (outdoor baths) and mushi-yu (steam baths). In addition, baths can be designed for use lying down or standing up, and can be divided into those only for men or exclusively for women.
To the Japanese, bathing in an onsen is as serious a ritual as sipping tea. before going into an onsen, the body is washed first as the tub at the onsen is used exclusively for soaking. Devotees attest that a long soak at the end of the day not only divest the body of dirt but also nourishes the spirit.
Unlike most other spas where the healing experience is essentially a private ritual involving only the therapist and the recipient, going to an onsen is a communal affair.
Most people spend half an hour in the bath every night and parents will generally bath together with their young children.
When bathing, the extra-deep tub is filled to the brim with very hot water, in which the person sits submerged to the neck. The body is washed and scrubbed clean before entering the bath as soap should not get into the tub.
Sitting on one of the small stools provided, soap is rubbed into the tenugui (small towel cloth) before the towel is used to rub over the entire body. Once the old skin cells are removed and circulation stimulated, a quick rinse leaves the skin soft and smooth. Then the real onsen experience begins.
Many onsen are found close to areas with volcanic activity, as bathing in mineral-rich waters is believed to cure numerous illnesses. People suffering from ailments as diverse as rheumatism and nervous disorders to circulation problems, skin irritations, aches and fatigue travel to bathe expressly to onsen rich areas to bathe in these therapeutic waters.
The seasons are important too, as bathing washes sweat off during the hot summer months and warms the body during winter. These days, aromatic baths are gaining popularity, with fruits, herbs and spices used to compliment the seasons. For example, mandarin orange peel is used during autumn, yuzu, an aromatic citrus fruit, is traditionally used during the winter solstice in December, and ginger helps to warm the body during the colder winter months.
In order to provide accommodation to visitors from afar, many ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are strategically located near onsen. At these inns, Japanese customs such as sitting cross legged on the wooden floor to eat and sleeping on futon (cotton mattress) prevail. With the proximity of the ryoken to the mineral-rich hotspring waters, guests can both complete their rejuvenating experience and enjoy the surrounding natural environment.