Though Japan’s doors were pried open by Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ships" (kurofune) in 1853, much of its inner self remains cloaked. Traditions such as kabuki, geisha, martial arts, sado (the Japanese tea ceremony) and temple stays are windows that give outsiders the ability to peer into the soul of the country for fleeting moments. But one ancient tradition, which foreigners and residents alike can literally immerse themselves in, is the ritual associated with the Japanese hot spring.
For the introduction to my book, “The Way of the Japanese Bath,” which documented the country’s hot spring tradition, I wrote: “While all the primeval geological and geothermal rumblings under Japan have set off devastating volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes (ten percent of the world’s volcanic activity occurs in Japan), they have also provided the 127 million inhabitants of the island nation on the Ring of Fire with a very unique way of life. Millions of people check in each year at onsen (hot spring) ryokans (Japanese style inns) or hotels, often to escape the extreme stress-inducing population density of its country’s cities. The 20,000 thermal hot springs that flow from the ground are meccas, a place to bathe not only the body but the soul as well.”
Visitors should be aware that bathing for cleaning is not practiced in Japan. Soap is never brought into a bath either at a communal bath or at home. Washing is done before going into the bath for a soak and then often followed by a thorough rinsing and shampooing. Physical maladies are often treated at baths with specific mineral properties in the water. The Ainu, the indigenous people of the Japanese islands, used hot springs for healing purposes. An old Kusatsu (a town on the main island of Honshu) folksong declares, “A hot spring bath can cure anything but love.” Scientific research continues to be conducted on the medicinal benefits of the hot spring water. For instance, radioactive water is reported to help those suffering from gout, diabetes, chronic digestive problems, gallstones, and fatigue. Sulfur content in the water is considered a remedy for metallic poisoning and is said to clear up a bad complexion. Noboribetsu in Hokkaido is one of the most popular onsen towns because of its variety of waters with medicinal benefits yet most water is classified as simple thermal and most onsen visitors come for simple relaxation. People often shed their city clothes for the duration of their visits and stroll the streets of these onsen towns dressed in a yukata (a light cotton kimono) with the addition of a hanten (a short coat) in winter.
Humans are not the only creatures to take advantage of the onsens. Snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) are regular patrons at Jigokudani in Joshinetsu Plateau National Park in Nagano Prefecture. Back at home in even the smallest apartments, a deep bathtub can be found for this same meditative soaking. After sitting on a small stool and rinsing off, you immerse yourself in the tub. After your bath, a plastic roll up top is placed back on the top of the tub to keep the heat in for the next member of the household. Only after everyone has taken a bath – including overnight houseguests – will the water be drained.
My first Japanese hot spring experience in Beppu, a town often shrouded in water vapor on the southern island of Kyushu, converted me into a furo-aholic (bath-aholic) in the early 1990s. More than two and a half decades later I still find the magical waters an endless source of both visual and visceral pleasure.