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UPDATE | December 01, 2022

Learn about Japanese hot spring culture

The season has changed from autumn to winter, and it's getting colder day by day. How do you spend the cold winter months in your country? In Japan, it has long been a custom to bathe in hot springs to warm yourself up when it is cold. This time, I would like to introduce Japanese hot spring culture.

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History of hot springs

Many people may think of hot springs when they think of Japan, but how many hot springs are there in Japan?
Currently, there are 3,000 hot spring resorts in Japan, and it is said that there are about 27,000 hot spring sources (places where hot springs spring up from the ground).
Japan's topography is located on a volcanic belt, and about 7% of the world's active volcanoes are concentrated in Japan.
Some of the rain and snow that falls near volcanoes seeps underground and becomes groundwater. The underground water is warmed by the heat of the magma, which is over 1,000℃ under the volcano, and the hot springs gushed out.

There are various theories about the origin of hot springs, and it is not clear, but it is said that there was already a description of hot springs in a book from the Nara period about 1,300 years ago.
In Japan, there has long been the idea of ``toji'', which is the practice of speeding up the recovery of illnesses and injuries by soaking in hot springs.
Just as in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, there is a long history of hot spring cures in Europe.
In Japan, it is said that hot springs began to be introduced mainly by the imperial family around the 7th century, and then gradually spread to people of all social classes.
It is also said that when Zen Buddhism spread in Japan, the hot spring cure culture was spread by Zen priests who traveled all over Japan.
Since the Edo period, more and more people have come to enjoy hot springs not only for the purpose of healing, but also as a place for socializing.
Today, many people visit hot springs to forget about their daily lives and relax.


Onsen etiquette and rules

Check the basic onsen etiquette and rules so that you don't have to worry about entering an onsen for the first time in Japan.
Recently, more and more places have explanations in multiple languages, such as English and Chinese, with illustrations so that foreigners can enter with peace of mind.

① Before entering the hot water, be sure to "kakeyu" to clean your body.
② If you have long hair, tie it up on your head to prevent it from getting in the bath.
③ Do not put towels in the bath.
④Swimming or talking loudly in the bath will annoy other people.
⑤ Wipe your body with a towel when you leave the bathroom.
⑥ Drinking too much alcohol before taking a bath may cause you to collapse, so be careful not to drink too much.
⑦ Do not use mobile phones or cameras in the dressing room or bathroom.
⑧Do not dye or wash your hair in the bathroom.

These are the basic rules, but some places have their own rules.
If you have a small tattoo, you can cover it with a bandage, but if you have a tattoo on your back or arm that stands out, you may be refused.
If you can't use a public hot spring, choose an accommodation with a private hot spring.

Introduction of hot spring spots

Finally, we will introduce hot spring spots called "Japan's three famous hot springs".
It seems that it came to be called like this because it appeared in books of the Muromachi period.

①Kusatsu Onsen
Kusatsu Onsen
Where is it?⇒Click here for the map
[By train] About 25 minutes by bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen from JR Agatsuma Line "Naganohara Kusatsuguchi Station"
In this hot spring town in Gunma Prefecture, more than 32,300 liters of hot spring water gushes out every minute, about 230,000 oil drums a day. It is characterized by strong acidity and high temperature. Yubatake, the symbol of the Kusatsu hot spring town, is open 24 hours a day, and the steam is always rising.
Kusatsu has long been famous as a medicinal bath, and even now many people visit Kusatsu for physical treatment.
We recommend strolling around the hot spring town in a yukata.

②Gero Onsen
Gero Onsen
Where is it?⇒Click here for the map

[By train] Short walk from JR Takayama Main Line "Gero Station"
Gero Onsen, which springs up near the Hida River in Gifu Prefecture, is located near the top of a volcano that erupted about 100,000 years ago, and is said to have been discovered about 1,000 years ago.
The spring quality is an alkaline simple hot spring, and the water is smooth. The smooth and smooth hot water feels good on the skin, and is also called "beauty hot water".
It is said that this hot spring was a hidden hot spring during the Warring States period, and was used as a cure for those who were injured in battle.
There are also public hot springs called sotoyu, where you can enjoy an open atmosphere if you don't mind being seen.

③ Arima Onsen
Arima Onsen
Where is it?⇒Click here for the map
[By train] Immediately after getting off at Kobe Electric Railway Arima Line "Arima Onsen Station" / Bus from Umeda Station
This hot spring town, located deep in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture, has a history of 1,300 years and is said to have been a favorite place of the famous military commander Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
It is easily accessible by bus or train from the center of Osaka or Kobe, making it a popular hot spring town for overseas tourists. The charming townscape becomes even more beautiful during the cherry blossom and autumn leaves seasons.
At the hot spring inn, you can also enjoy gourmet foods such as Kobe beef. There are a total of seven hot spring sources, including “Kinsen” and “Ginsen,” and you can visit all of them in a stamp rally format.

How was it?
If you know the history and etiquette of Japanese hot spring culture in advance, you can enjoy hot springs with peace of mind.
If you visit Japan during the cold season, be sure to try visiting hot springs all over Japan.

The person who wrote this article

Yuko Sakaguchi

A freelance Japanese teacher and local guide from Osaka. I fell in love with Kyoto in 2020 and moved to 2021. Currently, while teaching Japanese mainly in private lessons, he plans and manages writing, Chinese-Japanese translation proofreading, and online experiences.

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