6 Things I love about Hot Springs in Japan (Onsen and Sento)

I'm a little bit addicted to going to onsen in Japan

I love Japanese public baths.

It doesn’t matter if it’s onsen (a bath house where all the water is pumped up from volcanic activity in the earth) or sento (regular boiled water with the occasional minerals added), after a stressful day of meetings, writing, and hard-core Japanese studying, nothing makes me feel better than soaking in a public bath with a bunch of old grannies.

Onsen hot bath Japan Japanese hot springs sento public bath sulfer

Recently I got the opportunity to record an awesome “How to do Japanese Onsen” video at a fancy onsen in Tokyo (I still can’t believe they actually let me bring my camera in after hours to record!) … and sometime between soaking in the water, editing the video, and replying to comments in YouTube I realized “Wow, onsen is probably one of my favorite things in Japan (you know, aside from the husband).”

It’s strange how something you used to be afraid of – and kind of hate – can become something that you treasure. That’s how I feel about onsen.

Onsen hot bath Japan Japanese hot springs sento public bath

I wrote about my first onsen experience in this post. Really, the thought of stripping down in front of a bunch of strangers used to make my blood run cold. Now it doesn’t even phase me. Because I love Japanese public baths that much.

Why do I love Japanese public baths (onsen and sento)?

1. It has all sorts of health benefits

Soaking in an onsen with trace amounts of minerals (especially sulfur, magnesium, and calcium) is great for your body, because trace amounts of these minerals are absorbed into your body. They help heal your immune system as well as various organs.

Onsen hot bath Japan Japanese hot springs sento public bath

But even if you elect to go to the cheap sento down the street, instead of a more expensive onsen, you still get some fantastic health benefits. Soaking in a hot bath increases your heart rate (as soon as you get into the hot water), increases blood circulation, and lowers your blood pressure  (your blood becomes warmer, which causes your blood vessels to dilate and increases blood flow).

It’s also supposed to increase your metabolism.

And ward off illnesses in the winter (as well as making it easier for you to sleep).

2. It’s incredibly relaxing

I don’t need to tell you that soaking in a hot bath is relaxing, of course you already know that. I’ve found that the hot bath also helps with stress relief, by relaxing your muscles. And then when you get cold again (when you get out of the water), it further helps you relax and fall into a deep sleep that night.

I sleep best right after visiting the onsen.

Onsen hot bath Japan Japanese hot springs sento public bath

These days, I go twice a month – usually to celebrate finishing a project or right before a big, stressful day (so that my anxiety doesn’t keep my up all night). I have a members card for the local onsen, so I get nice discounts.

3. Soaking with naked old ladies is awesome

The overwhelming majority of onsen patrons are old folk. Personally, I love it.

Little old ladies in the countryside make wonderful onsen companions. Every so often, one will strike up conversation with me and introduce me to a couple of her onsen friends. So then the next time I visit, we nod at each other and have a pleasant conversation.

Small talk isn’t big in Japan (something I talked about in this comic) – pretty much the only place I get small talk these days is from naked old grannies in the bath.

Sulfer hot springs

Sulfer hot springs

4. It’s refreshing to be able to put your walls down (and not worry about what other people think)

I’m naked, you’re naked, let’s all get naked!

When I was a kid, I never thought I would be comfortable enough in my own skin to be able to be naked around another person (not to mention a dozen other people I don’t even know!). I had a hard time even just wearing a swimsuit at the pool.

Now sitting on the ledge of the hot bath doesn’t even phase me.

And it doesn't phase Ryosuke either!

And it doesn’t phase Ryosuke either!

Japanese Onsen totally fixed my self-esteem issues and made me comfortable with my body.

5. It’s a nice break from technology (and a chance to reconnect with nature)

Okay, so I’m a little bit addicted to the internet. To be fair, 90% of my job involves using the internet… so it’s not like I’m surrounding myself by blinking screens for 12 hours a day just for giggles.

If I get a headache from a particularly difficult project (or from too much squinting at the screen), a nice trip to the onsen will fix that.

6. The mineral waters make you skin feel AMAZING

My skin is soft, squishy, and acne-free for the days following a trip to our local onsen. And I love it.

If I have a big TV gig coming up (or something really important where there will be cameras), I will head off to the local onsen a day or two before, to make sure my skin looks good the day-of.

Onsen hot bath Japan Japanese hot springs sento public bath sulfer

Because even thought surfer onsen might smell like rotten eggs, it does wonderful things for your skin.

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If any of y’all have been to hot springs, what has been your favorite part?

About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

24 Comments on 6 Things I love about Hot Springs in Japan (Onsen and Sento)

  1. I think grannies love foreigners. I had a ball whenever we’d get in the bath with them. ;)

  2. I LOVE onsen! When I moved back to Melbourne, Australia I started going to a Japanese Sento there, but it was so expensive to enter. Now i’m in Okinawa, it’s always just too hot and there aren’t really many sento around. I need to look for one when it gets a tiny cit cold in Winter.
    I also agree about it making you comfortable with your own body!
    http://www.seachangeokinawa.blogspot.com

  3. Wow, still something I would be intimidated by, but after all you have said about them, I would definitely try them out! Here in India, our “baths” look and feel a lot like the ice bucket challenge. In the winter, we warm our bucket of water with an immersion rod, which I always fear will give me a bit of a shock. I haven’t had a decent soak for about 4 months (in America). The only public bathing going on here, would be a dip in the icy cold rivers, which usually involves clothes. Ahh it makes me miss and appreciate baths.

  4. It’s funny that you mention that nobody brings up conversation. I feel like one of the things I never understood about back home was that people ALWAYS, randomly made small talk. I was usually weirded out by it for fear of people’s intentions–but honestly that is the part that makes me the most awkward!
    (Also doesn’t help that I have pretty pictures all around my body so I always worry about not being able to get in.) But the time I did go to onsen, I wanted to relax and turn everything off–not talk in Japanese and have to use my brain for even small talk. (@_@)

    If it wasn’t for my body over heating so easily, I wish I could enjoy it like you do though. You bring a magical perspective to it~

  5. I totally agree that onsen makes you comfortable with your body – when I first went to a Japanese onsen I was anxious about getting naked in front of a bunch of strangers but I have been many times now and it feels perfectly natural. I think too often nudity is very sexualised and I really appreciate that there are environments (like onsens) where that is not the case!

  6. Onsens aside, I kinda miss the big bathtubs in Japan when I visited. I’m happy enough just to be able to soak in a deep tub with whatever bath salts the hotel provided me! American tubs are so shallow I have to adjust myself to even attempt to soak my whole body with the salts I import from Japan :D Sadly it’s the closest thing I can get to a bath experience.

    Also I cannot stand when people stare at me, so being a white person let alone naked around all those Japanese would drive me nuts so I can never step food into an onsen xD

  7. I might be asking a very dumb question, but… I just have to. :)) Why is it mandatory to be naked? Is it because a swimsuit will make you feel less comfortable? If I don’t care I’m not comfortable, then why should anyone else care? Or is it the fear of someone bringing a dirty swimsuit? It can be solved by checking it at the entrance. I just don’t get it…

    I understand that at first there were no bathing suits so you did not have a choice but to get naked. Having in mind that things have changed since then I would have thought this rule could have been adjusted…

    OK, as you have probably imagined I’ve never tried an onsen before. XD I think I would be more or less comfortable without a bra, but without panties I don’t think I can cope with that… People stare at me on the street for being a foreigner, I don’t dare to imagine being a naked foreigner. :)))

    • S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) // 25 September, 2015 at 12:49 am //

      They usually provide a small washcloth type of towel that you can use to cover your bits when you’re walking to and from the baths, if you like. The whole point of onsen is to strip down and not bring in ANYTHING from the outside that may contaminate the water. Some won’t even let you apply hand lotion when you’re done. I thought it would be weird but it’s really not. :) Hope you try it!

  8. I would be totally weird-ed out by being naked around someone else. But i guess you’re right, when everyone else is doing it you realize its not even a big deal. Like in middle school, when i started changing into my p.e clothes around all the other boys i hated it but then i realized that no one else cared, so i didnt. oh how i would love to go to an onsen :3

  9. Very jealous Grace! It looks incredibly relaxing…I wish there was a public bath in London (or maybe not…would probably be too many people!)

  10. You’re not the only one who’s addicted. ^^
    I remember it was a bit difficult for me to get naked the first time, but I simply love onsen too much to care about that nowadays. ;P

    I especially love rotenburo that offer a nice view or that are right beside the ocean. :)

  11. I hate being naked and I can’t even swim (mainly because I’m too scared to even show up in front of people just wearing a swimsuit). I wouldn’t be able to go to an onsen, I bet. ><

  12. When I lived in Tokyo many years ago, I rented an apartment that did not have its own bath. So, I used to walk 2-3 blocks to the nearest Santi for bathing. After some initial shyness at being The only gaijin there, let alone naked with other men, I began to really like it. It was a wonderful way to unwind after a day’s work teaching English. It was especially nice on cold winter nights when one did not have such great heat in one’s apartment.

    I discovered onsen later….and loved these even more. Whenever my wife and I visit Japan, we always go to an onsen as part of our trip. It is expensive to stay in a ryokan with one but the food is terrific and the bath is good for the soul.

  13. I just loved your youtube video on visiting onsen, and I got some excellent tips that made it a lot easier to go and try one out for myself without feeling worried that I’d cause some kind of cultural crisis!

  14. I was nervous/embarrassed the first time I went to a public bath but now I’m hooked! Onsen are great after a long day of hiking or traveling or sports or just busy days at work…I will be sad if I move to a country where I do those things with nothing but a shower to look forward to afterwards :(

  15. Grace, could you make a post or just tell more about hard-core studying Japanese? Please share your methods and tips!!
    And sento/onsen – I love it too! If it’s not kusai :)

  16. We were brave enough on our second family trip to Japan to try onsen, and became totally addicted! Four of the eight places we stayed had onsen or sento and at each one we visited at least twice a day. I read lots and watched your video before we went to make sure we were doing everything right. I have 2 daughters aged 12 and 5 and they loved it. Was so nice spending time together, washing and drying their hair, and the kids were also very careful to do everything properly. My favourite part i think is sitting on the little stools, an tipping a big basin of hot water over my head. Or where we had to tiptoe naked down steps outside past little pockets of snow but the stone steps had hot water flowing down!

  17. I would give anything to go to an Onsen. But first have to figure out about the few tattoos I have cause three are good size and one is a small one inch rose on my hand. ugh. ;(

  18. Great, definitely agree! Hot springs are Japan’s national treasure.

    Funny how small talk works sometimes. Who knew

    You look so serious in the pictures. Ryosuke looks like he’s having more fun :)

    Does look great. Where is that onsen? And, may I ask how you got pictures taken there…?

  19. Watching your video when you stayed at a traditional Ryokan…I fell in love with the idea of me dipping into an onsen. One I will be in Japan!

  20. S. J. Pajonas (spajonas) // 23 September, 2015 at 11:37 am //

    I remember my first sento experience in Japan and it still remains one of the highlights of my trip. It was so nice to sit and relax and talk with friends even though we were all naked. Totally didn’t faze me either! Lol. I love onsen and sento so much I’ve included them in almost all of my books. :)

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