Snowflakes melt on my skin as I head naked toward the steaming waters of Houheikyo onsen. Within seconds, I am relaxing in the hot spring’s 102-degree water, and I quickly forget about being outside in freezing weather. Physically, I am in Shikotsu-Toya National Park in the hills above Sapporo, Japan, on the island of Hokkaido; mentally, I am in a world far, far away. This is what an outdoor onsen is all about.
Japan’s traditional hot springs are tonic water for the body and soul.
Onsen are as quintessentially Japanese as sushi and ramen noodles, but unlike them can be truly appreciated only in the Land of the Rising Sun. It is a pity, then, that so few foreigners take the time to partake in this Japanese obsession, which acts as a portal to the old Japan.
There are more than 3,000 hot springs, or onsen, in Japan. Traditionally, onsen were natural pools full of geothermally heated water. These days, though, some onsen have given Mother Nature a hand by drilling down hundreds of yards into the earth to tap the hot waters.
For visitors to Japan, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the country is mostly mountainous and to instead become mesmerized by the shimmering lights of places like Tokyo’s Shibuya district. But this produces a blinkered vision of the modern Japan. Outside the cities is where you’ll find the old Japan — and this is onsen country.
Dogo-onsen Hot Spring, located in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, is where it all began. In a story I would like to believe, the gods of Earth (Okuninushi-no-Mikoto) and medicine (Sukunahikona-no-Mikoto) bathed here 3,000 years ago. Sukunahikona, who was at death’s door, was cured after the experience. Another origin legend tells of an injured heron that was healed in Dogo onsen’s waters. That story is likely to be closer to the truth but is not nearly as colorful.
The reputed healing properties of the waters eventually became part of Shinto purifying rituals. With the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century and the religion’s emphasis on purity, onsen bathing became increasingly popular. During Japan’s Edo Period (1603–1867), hard-toiling farmers would partake in toji (onsen therapy) to soothe their aching limbs and help their injuries heal.