Japan National Tourism Organization
Japan’s traditional hot springs are tonic water for the body and soul.
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.
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.