What is Onsen?
The difference between an onsen (hot spring) and a bath
The main difference between an onsen and a bath is the type of water used. Onsens use hot spring water that is determined by law. On the other hand, baths are filled with tap water.
Another difference is that the efficacy and health benefits of hot springs are firmly determined. The hot spring water of onsens are absorbed into the body through the skin, and are effective in promoting health and recovering from fatigue. The efficacy of hot springs vary from location to location, such as ones that are effective for exterior cuts, and ones for poor circulation, etc.
Hot springs also have more mineral components than tap water. For sterilization purposes, tap water contains chlorinated lime, which make it has fewer minerals. Minerals coat the skin, and warm the body up. Making the body warm provides a detoxifying effect by removing toxins from the body. The warming effect of hot springs continues for a long time after bathing. On the other hand, tap water contains chlorine to prevent bacterial growth. This chlorine is absorbed through the skin, which causes both the skin and hair to dehydrate. Chlorine can also cause harm to those who are allergic, as well as to babies and young children. Even though baths using heated tap water have a warming effect similar to that of an onsen, the warming effect only occurs on the surface, and the warmth does not last long.
Taking the effort to actually visit a hot spring is also considered to be one of the many benefits of onsens. Most houses in Japan have baths, so the concept of a bath itself is not very new. On the other hand, hot springs are usually located at a distance. Going to a hot spring far from home provides relaxation and stress relief.
The difference between Japanese and European hot springs
Most European hot springs are large in size like a pool, and have a sauna attached. There are also hot springs that serve as a kind of entertainment facility for the whole family. In contrast to this, most onsens in Japan are smaller in size. Hot springs are often located in areas surrounded by nature in the quiet countryside. Hot spring towns that have many Japanese-style inns have charm, and a sense of nostalgia. While modest in scale, Japanese hot springs have various ideas incorporated into them. A variety of different hot spring styles may be offered at one hot spring facility. It is highly enjoyable to try bathing in these different styles. For example, the material of the hot spring bathtubs may be different, such as Japanese cypress wood, and rocks. Others may be different in size, such as large hot spring baths for many people, and smaller one-person “Goemon Baths”. There is even a hot spring footbath, where users can quickly soak their feet in. Like with open-air baths, the idea of bathing while relaxing and enjoying the surrounding scenery is a characteristic of Japanese hot springs.
Hot spring towns in Japan not only have different hot springs, but hold slightly different cultures depending on their location. This shows in the surrounding environment and cuisine of the hot spring town. For cuisine, fresh fish is served in places located near the sea, and mountain vegetables at locations close to the mountains. Various historical buildings, such as shrines and temples, are also often located nearby. These shrines and temples can differ in style, depending on the period it was built, or the history surrounding it. Going through the effort of actually traveling to a hot spring, immersing yourself in the culture and history of the place, and being healed by the hot spring are all features of the Japanese hot spring culture.