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Japan’s position on top of a volcanic archipelago has clear disadvantages, so it’s important to remember one of its great benefits: Japan is home to literally thousands of hot springs, or onsen. The Japanese have a long and beautiful tradition of deep enjoyment of this natural advantage.

The word onsen refers to the hot springs themselves, but also to the many resorts, retreats and services that have sprung up around many of the places where this mineral rich, naturally hot water bubbles up from the volcanic depths. The Japanese have, as with the making of tea or the eating of noodles, turned the act of taking a bath into a deliberate, conscious, often communal and occasionally even spiritual experience.

Going to Japan without enjoying at least one visit to an onsen, preferably in the country, is to miss an essential part of what it is to be Japanese.

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The Nature of Onsen
Most onsen are located in the countryside, though as the practice draws more tourists, onsen are springing up within the cities as well. But these are more rightly called sento, or public baths, since they are not natural hot springs, but heated water baths. Sento are rarely as luxurious as a good onsen, but may be appealing for that very reason: these public baths preceded private baths in homes, so they are a good look at a different kind of Old Japan.

Most real onsen take full advantage of their locations in the beautiful Japanese countryside, with many laid out next to rivers, or with views of mountains or the ocean or even just a beautiful garden. A genuine onsen experience is complete in the finest Japanese tradition.

Communal bathing is a tradition in Japan, born partly of necessity from the time when few had their own baths. But it is also a strong expression of the communal Japanese character, with its manners and relaxed ambience. Although the traditional onsen (and sento) were “mixed” (women and men bathing together), that changed during the Meiji period of the 19th century, and in many public baths, the sexes still bathe apart.

One reason is that with a few exceptions, the Japanese prefer, quite sensibly, to bathe naked. In addition, most onsen owners and bathers will look at you askance if you enter a pool wearing a bathing suit.

The word “bath” is misleading here, for one is to thoroughly bathe, shampoo and soap and rinse, in the separate showers, well before entering the baths. Onsen are for soaking and relaxing, not washing up.

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Many Benefits of the Water
The water in the various onsen varies as well – this is, after all, “wild” water that bubbles up from the earth. and different onsen water in different locations carries different minerals, including ions of calcium chloride, sodium chloride, calcium, magnesium and others. To be called an onsen, at least one of these minerals must be present, and the water must come out of the ground at at least 25 degrees celsius.

The health benefits of mineral baths are well known around the world, from classical Rome and Turkey to modern California and Japan, and a rich culture has grown up around them over the centuries. Increased circulation, gravity-defying buoyancy, the mineral content and the cleansing power of sweat all combine for substantial benefits. Onsen fans are known for making sometimes-extravagant, or at least colorful, claims for their waters – one talks about the “40,000 ailments” their onsen can cure – but when one sinks down into a silky, steamy bath, one is likely to be convinced of even the most outlandish claim.

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Some of the Very Best Onsen
Onsen are scattered all over Japan, though the greatest concentration is in central Hokkaido, particularly west and north of Tokyo. The area around Kyoto features fewer popular onsen, but the ones that are in the area are among the best in the country.

Perhaps best known is the seaside onsen town of Kinosaki, which boasts seven traditional onsen in its delightful old town center, and one sees bathers shuffling between the public baths and along the town’s picturesque, tree-lined canals. The baths here offer great variety, with themed baths, garden (and cave) baths, and even a walk-in freezer for when the heat gets to be too much. A three-hour trip from Kyoto, Kinosaki’s position on the coast means that, in addition to the onsen, the hunger that many feel upon exiting the baths is easily sated with fresh seafood, including (during winter) some of the best fresh crab in Japan.

Kyoto is lucky to have one of the country’s best onsen, Arima Onsen, a 1300-year-old complex just to the north of Kobe, and a one hour train ride from Kyoto. This is reputed to be the oldest onsen in Japan, and the town’s narrow streets, with mountains rising all around it, are a wonderful antidote to the busy streets of nearby Osaka and Kobe.

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Also near Kyoto is Shirahama Onsen on the south coast, two hours from Osaka, while considerably further from Kyoto, Nozawa Onsen is a small village north of Nagano in the Japan Alps, known in winter for its alpine skiing. Settled in the 8th century, the village’s maze of narrow streets also host 13 free onsen, known as Soto-yu.

Wherever one ends up soaking, the variety and richness of the onsen culture, as well as the towns that have grown up around these ancient sites, are not to be missed.

By DAVID WATTS BARTON