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What is Onsen

An ONSEN is a term for hot springs in the Japanese language, though the term is often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of ONSEN scattered along its length and breadth. ONSEN were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism.

ONSEN come in many types and shapes, including outdoor and indoor baths. Baths may be either public run by a municipality or private often run as part of a hotel.
ONSEN are a central feature of Japanese tourism often found out in the countryside but there are a number of popular establishments still found within major cities. They are a major tourist attraction drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax.

Japanese often talk of the virtues of “naked communion” for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed homey atmosphere. Japanese television channels often feature special programs about local onsens.

Traditionally, onsen were located outdoors, although a large number of inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. ONSEN by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally heated springs. ONSEN should be differentiated from sento, indoor public bath houses where the baths are filled with heated tap water.

The legal definition of an onsen includes that its water must contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including radon and metabolic acid and be 25๐C or warmer before being reheated. Stratifications exist for waters of different temperatures. Major ONSEN resort hotels often feature a wide varety of themed spa baths and artificial waterfalls in the bathing area.

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ONSEN water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, marble or granite, while indoor tubs may be made with tile, acrylic glass or stainless steel.

Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen and sento but single-sex bathing has become legalized as the norm since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period.

Multi-sexual bathing persists at some special ONSEN in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate “women-only” baths or different hours for the two sexes. Children of either sex may be seen in both the men’s and the women’s baths. People often travel to ONSEN with work colleagues, friends, couples or their families.