Living in Japan
Hot springs in the Chubu region

Hot springs in the Chubu region

Added In: Living in Japan › Onsen (hot springs)

Sally Griffiths

As the weather begins to cool down and the festival season ends it is time for the most relaxing of all Japanese past times – having a bath - to be taken up again in earnest. Whether you splash out on a night or two at an onsen resort or visit one of the many modern urban sento there are few more satisfying ways of whiling away a chilly day.

The best baths of all are onsen, the naturally hot and mineral enriched water that Japan has in abundance. There are many different types, depending on what minerals and in what concentrations; you can bathe in red, yellow, white or clear water, breathe pungent sulfur smells or take your chances in a radium-enriched bath. Shirahone in Nagano was named after its bone white waters, while Nagaragawa in Gifu has water that appears red due to its high iron content. The most common type though is simple alkaline, a clear unscented water which leaves your skin feeling soft and smooth.

Head to Utsumi in Aichi or Shirahama in Wakayama if you'd like to gaze over the Pacific, Gero in Gifu or Atami in Shizuoka to experience the atmosphere of a resort town, Yu no Yama in Mie to enjoy the crystalline beauty of the ice covered trees before your dip and Jigokudani in Nagano to see snow monkeys bathing. Shirouma-yari, also in Nagano has the highest open-air bath in Japan, as well as reputedly excellent skiing. This list doesn't even begin to cover the options available; once you've paid a visit to all the onsen listed in your guide book, consider getting one of the many Japanese publications devoted to the subject for a chance to experience some 'off the beaten track' baths.

There are usually several onsen bathing places clustered together sharing the same source, and generally one or more of them allows people to enjoy the baths without needing to pay to stay overnight. That said, if you have the money an overnight stay is a wonderful indulgence from the moment you step into your Japanese style room and put on your yukata. Stays generally include both dinner and breakfast and the food is always delicious and extremely ample. Expect to pay from 10 000 yen per person. Good value package deals including lunch and a bath or a stay in a resort and train fares are often available from the train companies; just visit a Kintetsu, Meitetsu or JR tour office to see what is available when you want to travel.

If you don't have the time or the money to go to a hot spring, then take a couple of hours to stop by at a sento. The older sento in Japan, with nothing much more than a changing room, a place to wash and a big communal bath, are gradually being replaced by 'super sento' which also offer massages, beauty therapies, hairdressing and restaurants. Some also have services such as yoga or dance classes, or ganbanryoku, the latest and most fashionable incarnation of the sauna. Quite often, these places will have onsen water filling one or several of their many baths, which usually include jet massage baths, a Jacuzzi, one or more rotenburo and the ubiquitous electric bath. This last bath is easily recognizable by stainless steel armrests where the bather sits and calm water. Although it sounds dangerous, it is unlikely to harm anyone without a medical condition – that said, not many foreigners find it a pleasant experience! Other common types of bath are individual pot baths, extremely shallow baths with heated bases to lie down in, and scented baths.

Finding a sento should not be too difficult – just look for a large 湯 (yu, meaning hot water) character. Some interesting ones around Nagoya include Miya no Yu Atta (about a ten minute walk from Kanayama station in the direction of Aeon) which imports onsen water by truck from various famous onsen; Owari Onsen Sento with massive indoor rock lined pools (free shuttle bus from Kintetsu's Kanie station); Ichihata-san Yakushi-ji (near Meitetsu's Miai station), which is an onsen inside a Buddhist temple, and Sanno Onsen Kita no Yu (close to the Meitetsu Sanno station) which among many other features allows you to watch TV in the bath. Again, this list does not begin to cover the huge amount of variety out there; there are plenty of magazines and books in Japanese on the subject, as well as a small amount in English on the Internet.

For more information about the culture of bathing in Japan, read Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese bath by Eric Talmadge. Anne Hotta, and Yoko Ishigura's A Guide to Japanese Hot Springs, is a useful travel guide for those who would like to visit onsen anywhere in Japan.

The Language of the Bath
An onsen (according to the Japanese Hot Springs Law) is any natural water containing minerals or gases with a heat of at least 25 degrees Celsius (77 Fahrenheit). A sento is a public bath, which may or may not use onsen water. A rotenburo is an outside bath. Ganbanryoku can be found at many sento, and are saunas where the customers lie on heated rocks wearing pajamas supplied by the sento.

Bathing Dos and Don'ts
  • DO check opening times before you go. Most sento are open from around 10 am until at least 8pm; most onsen have public bathing times from around 11 am until around 3 pm, but times can vary and many have regular closed days.
  • DO bring some spare change. Shoe lockers and clothes lockers often require a refundable deposit of 100 yen. Most sento sell their tickets by vending machine, however these usually accept notes.
  • DO wash yourself before you get into the bath; make sure that there is no soap left on you and that long hair is kept up. In the men’s it is usual to just splash a bit of hot water over the privates before entering the bath.
  • DON'T worry if you forget your towel – most sento and many onsen have things like towels, combs and specialty soaps on sale. Unless you are paying 400 yen or less, you are pretty safe to assume that there will be complimentary soap and shampoo in the washing areas and that there will be hairdryers (usually also free).
  • NEVER let your towel enter the bath itself. Common practices include folding it and sitting it on your head, or leaving it on a rock close by, as long as it doesn’t end up in the bath itself.
  • DON'T be shy. Getting undressed in a room full of strangers is never easy the first time, but honestly, no one is that interested in you. If you are particularly bashful, then get one of the thin, little towels on sale at the front desk (usually around 100 yen) to use as a modesty screen as you walk from place to place. In the men’s bath it is usual for blokes to use your washing towel to hide the tackle as you move around, but not compulsory.
  • NEVER take any food or drink into the bath area; while it may be a great idea to have a few beers and some potato chips with your mates, it is sure to dirty the water (in more than one sense).
  • TATTOOS While most bathing establishments in Japan (including public swimming pools!) will have a big sign saying NO TATTOOS. (as they are the symbol of yakuza), in general as a foreigner you will have no problems. Show a suitably relaxed demeanor and you are in. Occasionally you may be asked to cover arm tattoos with a material brace, such as that used for a sporting injury.
  • DON’T sit down as soon as you get in the bath; that is usually the main entrance where everyone enters! Move over/around a bit to make sure it is easy for others to enter/exit.
  • TAKE the kids, but if your child is of the opposite gender from you (e.g. mother and son, father and daughter), it is acceptable to have children up to about the age of 9 enter your bath. After that, they should go to their own gender bath.
  • REMEMBER that in some of the real local sento there will be regulars, people who have been coming here for donkey’s years. There is a hierarchy; use a bit of nouse and figure out where it is OK for the newbie’s to sit.
  • SAY “Hello” to other bathers (for the tourist, Konnichiwa in the daytime, Konbanwa in the evening). It can go a very, very long way in making the experience that much more real; I can’t count the number of great people I have met in the buff in a bath!
And finally, some useful vocab:
Atsui Hot!
Nurui Luke warm
Sumetai Cold
Kimochi Ii Damn that feels good!

Hot springs in the Chubu region
This means "Hot Water"!