Mastering the Art of Onsen
The Japanese bath is more than just a bath: it is a cleansing ritual, a way to restore both body and mind. Visiting an onsen with its hot, mineral-rich waters soothes the aches and stresses of the day. Bathing in Japan is also a social activity, as friends and families relax and talk together. Men and women generally bathe separately, but many traditional inns have private onsen or family-style baths that can be reserved for one group.
The purpose of an onsen is to relax. You should clean your body completely before you enter the bath, using the small seated shower area outside the bath. This will also help your body to prepare for the hot onsen water, which is generally around 42 Celsius, though there are often cooler baths in the same complex. Be aware that tattoos are generally not welcome at public baths, although small tattoos can be covered. If you are concerned, try a ryokan with a family-style or private bath.
Don’t stay in too long, or you may feel faint; and don’t rinse off after you bathe, or you will lose the benefits of the minerals on your skin. After you dry off and dress again, it is important to drink liquids to replace the fluids lost through sweating and the diuretic effect of the minerals.
The Best Baths
There is nothing better than relaxing in a hot onsen bath while gazing at an amazing view.
All over Nara, you will find onsen that make the most of the seasons. Built on a mountain ridge, most of the ryokan in Yoshinoyama feature views over the valleys and forest, which you can enjoy while bathing. At Chikurin-in Gunpoen in Yoshino, you get a prime view of the cherry blossoms or autumn colours from the bath. After a relaxing bath, stroll the beautiful 300 year-old gardens around the ryokan.
Mt. Shigi in Ikoma is another famous spot for enjoying seasonal colours. While there are several luxurious onsen hotels on the mountain, you don’t have to be a hotel guest to bathe. Many ryokan and hotels offer lunch and bath packages to let non-residents enjoy the beautiful onsen facilities.
In southern Nara, Dorogawa Onsen and Totsukawa are famous for their natural hot spring waters. In the town of Dorogawa, every ryokan on the main street has at least one onsen bath, and daytime visitors can also visit the Dorogawa Onsen Center. In Totsukawa, drop in at Iori-no-yu Onsen for a soak. There are indoor and outdoor baths made from Yoshino cedar and local stone. Some public baths in both areas have free foot baths out front, offering a chance to soak your weary feet after a long hike.
Onsen bathing is the perfect way to relax after a day of hiking, and helps prevent muscle stiffness. If you visit the silvery pampas grass plains of Soni Highland, you can relax at Okame-no-yu Onsen, with mountain views from the outdoor baths.
The aim of most onsen is to bring you closer to nature, so the facilities are often simple and rustic. But if you want to experience an onsen as a spa resort, there are several large complexes around Nara. Often open 24 hours, and featuring extras like massage, sauna and hot-stone treatments along with restaurants and play areas, these are a great option for a rainy day or when you just can’t sleep.