Some like it steamy — Japan’s hot spring onsen

For those of us from less geologically excitable regions, the Japanese fondness for stripping off and boiling themselves in volcanic water may seem positively eccentric. But, it’s a real thing.

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As we all know, and the Japanese people experience every day to their own peril, this archipelago is located on one of the most active geological fault systems in the world. Japan is being literally pushed out of the sea by colliding tectonic plates.

This means lots of volcanoes and earthquakes and attendant hazards like tsunami and landslides, but it also means lots and lots of geothermal energy, which means lots and lots of bubbling hot springs to splash around in. And these springs are everywhere.

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bubbly hot spring

Does this abundance of hot water explain the Japanese fondness for hot liquids, from piping hot green tea on a summer day, to the nightly tub, to communal food dishes like hotpots? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that the more something steams, the more likely it is to catch the attention of the people here.

 

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night spring

Of course, throughout history and in a great many cultures, people have been extolling the benefits and pleasures of geothermal springs. The heat and the abundance of minerals in the water lead to claims of life-enhancing, health-improving, longevity-stretching qualities. The Romans loved them, even Britain’s overly modest Victorians flirted with them, and you can’t get the Icelandic people out of them. But in Japan the hot spring has long been elevated to the status of high culture.

 

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morning spring

There are several kinds of spring. There are specialist bathhouses and you’ll find them in Japanese-style inns (ryokan and minshuku) and even some modern hotels.

You’ll most often meet the indoor bath, but the keenest bathers seek the ultimate delicacy: the outdoor hot bath.

 

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afternoon soak

Yes, before you ask, many of the baths are communal, which, the Japanese people maintain, is good for social bonding. However, private options are generally available.

Bathers first scrub themselves meticulously in more conventional showers. You never put a dirty person or soap into the hot spring — it’s absolutely not done.

Having scrubbed yourself, and protecting your modesty with a small towel, you’ll slip into the hot spring water with the other bathers.

The bath might be designed to look like a rock pool or something more like a Roman bath: the aesthetics are part of the appeal of the experience.

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steamy soak

If you are at an outdoor onsen, you might have a splendid view of mountains or lakes to enjoy, and people make great claims about bathing naked under the open sky. Whatever kind of bath, once you are in, you just sit and steam. You might ponder the imponderables of the universe, daydream, or chat with the other people in the bath.

Variations might include drinking hot sake right there in the steaming waters, the bottle on a little floating tray; or whole oranges might be added to the water, suffusing the experience with citrus odours.

The winter experience is especially valued, soaking in that hot water while snow piles all around.

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Snowy onsen

Even Japan’s indigenous monkeys love the hot waters, and some onsen operators have to go to extravagant lengths to keep our simian cousins out of the pools meant for people.

Those geothermal properties are not to be taken lightly. While different baths offer different temperatures, from the mild to heat that will turn you the colour of lobster, some of the hottest waters are diverted for cooking food, especially onsen eggs. Yes, eggs boiled slowly in the natural heat of the water as it comes out of the ground. These eggs are very soft boiled and silky of texture, and are to be found at all real hot spring resorts. Yes, eggs cooked in the same sort of water you bathe in: there’s food for thought.

No tour of Japan would be complete without a visit to an onsen and Dragonfly Tours makes sure you have plenty of opportunities to get wet.

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onsen, Japanese hot spring

One of the main resorts is Hakone, near Tokyo, and four of Dragonfly’s tours call in here — the Cherry Blossom Tour, the Crimson Leaf Tour, the Ancient Highway Tour and the Takayama Tour (Takayama, separate from Hakone, is blessed with an abundance of its own springs). On the Cherry Blossom and Crimson leaf tours, Dragonfly uses a beautiful ryokan call Aura Tachibana, with suite rooms and baths on the balcony – and which is blessed with amazing food too. On the Ancient Highway and Takayama tours, you may also have a private bath on your balcony while you stay at the resort. The Kyushu Gateway tour takes you to Beppu, one of the most dramatically active of Japan’s resorts. All tours visit Kyoto, which has its own spa options. And if you are interested in any spot not on the itinerary, you have the option of the private tour visit.

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Hotel hot spring

Japan’s geologic heritage has provided us with a vast network of free hot baths, and it’s a great shame to visit Japan without availing yourself of nature’s steaming largesse.

Dragonfly Tour Japan

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