Japan's onsen were traditionally mixed sex. However, since the Westernization of Japan began in the Meiji-era this is becoming increasingly rare. Over 95% of the onsen in the country now have separate baths for men and women. Young children may accompany a parent into the opposite bath.
As children, most Japanese first experience onsen on a family trip. Onsen are the most popular reason to travel to the Japanese countryside. Families, friends, couples, domestic tour groups and international tourists flock to onsen year round.
(onsen foot bath)
Where to Find OnsenThere are easily 100,000 onsen in Japan. They can be found at hotels, ryokan, pensions, and manshons.
There are also public and private onsen that aren't part of a hotel or residence. These vary from a natural onsen with no changing room in the middle of a forest to modern onsen resorts with dozens (or even hundreds) of baths.
Onsen can be found in large cities (even in Tokyo). However, the vast majority of onsen are in the countryside. They're everywhere.
Japan has dozens of well known onsen resort towns such as Atami and Hakone (near Tokyo). Each onsen town may have dozens (or even 100s) of onsen spots.
Healing OnsenOnsen waters are usually rich in minerals. The mineral content of water varies greatly from onsen to onsen. Onsen waters may be high in iron, sodium chloride, sulphur, radical carbon or radium. PH levels also vary from one onsen to the next.
Most well known Japanese onsen are purported to cure some ailment. There are onsen for every major disease and medical challenge.
Health claims of onsen are taken seriously. Couples who are trying to conceive flock to fertility onsen. The older generation head for onsen that improve circulation or sooth painful joints.
There are also onsen that are supposed to have magical powers such as improving your luck in love or business. Others are said to exorcize evil spirits.
RotenburoRotenburo are outdoor onsen. Traditionally, most onsen were outside.
Rotenburo are considered more desirable than indoor onsen. Part of the onsen experience is connecting with nature. Many rotenburo have a great view of mountain, forest or sea. In northern regions of Japan rotenburo are surrounded by snow in the winter months.
Some rotenburo are naturally occurring pools or ancient man-made pools. Others are built by resorts and hotels. Good rotenburo are constructed of natural materials to fit into the aesthetics of the surrounding area. They're usually landscaped for privacy from the surrounding area.
KonyokuKonyoku are mixed sex onsen that are found in the countryside. At one time all onsen were konyoku.
These days, they're exceedingly rare. In fact, they're illegal in some cities (Tokyo included). This is widely regarded as an example of the Americanization of Japan.
The Konyoku that remain are often old edo-era baths in the countryside that simply lack the budget to build separate facilities. As exciting as mix sex bathing may sound it's usually people over 60 who partake in it. In recent years, several konyoku have attracted large numbers of European tourists.
Large konyoku that are in public locations or close to big cities usually allow (or require) bathing suits. Many onsen enthusiasts feel this is generally detrimental to onsen culture and traditions.
Private OnsenSome onsen resorts, hotels and ryokan rent private onsen. These may be rented by a couple, family or groups of friends. Some ryokan have onsen in rooms (often a rotenburo on a balcony).
SentoSento are similar to onsen except that their water is artificially heated. Sento water is often tap water that lacks the mineral properties of onsen.
Sento are most often found in urban areas. In the old days, Japanese homes didn't have a bath. Every neighborhood had a sento. The sento was the neighborhood hub where neighbors got to know each other.
These days, (almost) everyone has a bath in their home. Nevertheless, sento continue to thrive.
Onsen CultureOnsen are enjoyed as a way to connect with nature and people. People let their guard down at onsen. It's common to strike up conversation with strangers. Many Japanese firmly believe that onsen can bring friends, coworkers, couples and families closer together. This is referrer to as hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い) ~ naked comradeship.
Visiting OnsenOnsen are recommended for any visitor to Japan. Before going to onsen it's important to learn about onsen etiquette otherwise embarrassing things might happen.
Onsen manners aren't taken lightly. When a foreigner breaks the rules onsen resorts can become unfriendly.
Most gaijin bathers maintain excellent manners and impress the locals.