A Visit to Japan’s Hot Springs
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN JAPAN
WHAT comes to your mind when you think of Japan? Majestic Mount Fuji? The speeding bullet train? The megalopolis Tokyo? There is more to the land of the rising sun than those famous tourist attractions. Whether for medicinal purposes or for relaxation, millions annually visit onsens—the hot springs of Japan. During one recent year, an estimated 140 million people checked in at a hot-spring inn or hotel in Japan. But what makes these spas so popular?
The Japanese have enjoyed bathing in geothermal waters for many centuries. Writings dating back to the eighth century C.E. mention the use of hot springs. Evidently, the 16th-century feudal lord Takeda Shingen championed the medicinal value of mineral springs. After battles, he and his samurai warriors bathed in hot springs to help heal sword wounds, broken bones, cuts, and bruises. The waters were also useful for relieving stress and for preparing the men for the next battle.
Of course, bathing would place the samurai in a vulnerable position—that of being unarmed in the event of a surprise attack. To overcome this problem, Takeda Shingen made use of a group of remote and secluded springs, which later came to be known as Shingen’s hidden baths. Interestingly, these same springs are now used by professional athletes, including sumo wrestlers and baseball players, in the belief that the waters can reinvigorate their bodies for future sporting endeavors.
Unique Geographic Features
Japan’s geographic features are particularly suited for thermal springs. Studding the surface of the archipelago are some 245 volcanoes, 86 of which are active. These volcanoes stand as a sobering reminder of events taking place deep beneath the surface of the earth. What do we find there?
The Japanese islands are situated on top of converging lithospheric plates, or slabs of crust. Magma, molten rock, is believed to be generated along the point of convergence of these gigantic plates. Located directly above—and functioning as visible outlets—are the volcanoes. This geothermal zone also serves as the fountainhead of heat to the underground springs. Interacting with magma or hot rocks, the groundwater is warmed and absorbs minerals, resulting in ideal conditions for onsens to be born. It is for good reason that the book The Hot Springs of Japan notes: “No country in the world is so blessed with natural hot springs as Japan.” Indeed, a 1998 study lists 2,839 hot springs in the land.
Japan’s hot springs come in a variety of styles, sizes, shapes, and colors. In an effort to classify the therapeutic value of the springs, the Japanese Environment Agency has organized them into nine chemical categories. The names given to hot springs often refer to their characteristics. For instance, springs rich in iron may make your towel turn reddish-orange. Hence, the word “red” is incorporated into their names. Springs with a high saline content are named salt baths. And how about taking a dip in an eel bath? Granted, this may not sound appealing. But do not worry. Eels are not really found in these springs. The name was chosen because when people emerge from these springs, their skin feels as slimy as that of an eel—a result of the alkalinity of the waters.
Amid Beautiful Settings
Soaking in thermal waters amid such beautiful settings as mountains, valleys, rivers, the seashore, and the plains makes for a uniquely pleasant experience and leaves an impression that will not be easily forgotten. Because many of Japan’s hot springs are located outdoors, bathers have a clear view of great natural beauty. The ceiling above is the deep-blue sky, while the surrounding mountains serve as walls. The sounds coming from this “outdoor room” can be a choir of birds singing in the morning or the melody of a gently flowing brook. Really, there seems to be no end to the appealing features of the hot springs.
Does bathing under a waterfall interest you? This experience can be yours. Cascading waters give you a massage and add another dimension to bathing Japanese-style. It is also possible to bathe in a cave, where hot mineral waters bubble forth from the deep recesses of rock formations. Some springs are located on the beach, with a perfect view of the sunset, whereas others are nestled alongside rivers.
No matter what the location or type of hot spring chosen, one thing is certain: If you bathe in volcanically heated springs, you will experience, if for but a moment, relief from the stress of daily living. You will emerge truly refreshed and perhaps a little closer to the Japanese life-style. So if you have an opportunity to visit this part of the world, by all means enjoy the onsens—the hot springs of Japan!
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HOT SPRINGS AND SHOGUNS
Mineral water was highly esteemed during the Edo period (1603-1867). Military dictators, called shoguns, actually had the waters transported in wooden barrels supported by poles from Atami to Edo (Tokyo)—a distance of 70 miles [110 km]—on the shoulders of human carriers. At several points along the route, the prized waters were handed over to a different team of carriers, and they, in turn, bore the load over their leg of the journey. In this way the mineral waters were transported at a brisk pace. The thermal waters collected at the source were nearly at the boiling point. On this arduous trip of some 15 hours, the water from the springs would cool down to just the right temperature for the shogun to enjoy a rejuvenating bath in his castle at Edo!
A Chronological Table of the History of Atami
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According to custom, soaping and washing is done outside the hot springs, after which the body is rinsed thoroughly. Then it is time to submerge in the clear mineral waters.* It is best to ease in, for the temperature of some springs can be quite high. When finished, do not rinse off the minerally rich water. Just wipe yourself dry with a towel. It is thought that minerals that soak in may help soften your skin.
Public bathing in gender-separated spas is another unique feature of the onsen.
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Thermal waters are enjoyed during all seasons
Fall: Yubara, Okayama Prefecture; winter: The Mainichi Newspapers
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Hakkoda Onsen Yusen