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Japan and Onsen – A Naked History

One of the most curious cultural aspects of Japanese life is the almost ritual visits to hot springs (onsen) throughout the length and breadth of the country. In accordance with a 1948 Hot Spring Law defining onsen, there are over 2,300 recognised hot springs in the Land of the Rising Sun. Indeed, as the aptly named travel writer Anna Hotta notes, such is the number of resorts, if a person went to a different onsen once a week it would take over forty years to visit them all.

As a land of more-or-less constant seismic activity, Japan has no shortage of thermal springs, and onsen have been an integral part of society here for millennia – Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama, Shikoku Prefecture, for example, has a 3,000-year history. The discovery of some of Japan’s most remote and beautiful hot springs has been attributed to ancient hunters, who stumbled upon these bubbling sulphur-scented pools when pursuing wounded animals. The latter would instinctively go to hot springs to soothe their pain, and some argue that it is for this reason that the Japanese often credited animals as being messengers of the Gods, sent to lead man to these ‘divine’ waters. To this day, many onsen buildings have statues of brown bears and white herons, in tribute to the critters that aided their discovery.

The arrival of Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD served to popularize onsen even more: the bathing ritual of purification was throughly in keeping with the religion’s principles. Detachment and cleansing oneself from the ‘sins’ of the mortal world are core tenets of Buddhism. By immersing one’s body in the ‘divine’ waters, the bather allows it to be cleansed of the sins of the flesh, and the good will of the Gods is conferred upon him or her. Appropriately enough, there is evidence that many onsen were established by famous Buddhist monks such as Kobo Daishi, Gyoki and Ippen Shonin, who believed that Buddhist deities had guided them to the thermal waters. The ritualistic process of bathing seen at onsen, meanwhile, bears more than a passing resemblance to practices established at temples such as Todajii, Saidaiji and Daigoji.

To the foreign observer, of course, the thought of lying naked and sharing a public bath (ohfuro) with complete strangers can be shocking. Western, Christian-influenced views of nudity – and its relation with sex – are at odds with the Japanese take on nakedness, which finds nothing intrinsically suggestive, offensive or debauched about public bathing in the buff. When Francis Xavier inaugurated the first Christian mission to Japan in 1549, the missionaries who arrived were horrified to learn of the Japanese custom of almost daily public bathing, often with men and women sharing the same tub. Their disgust was exacerbated, too, by the fact that many sixteenth century Europeans believed daily bathing to be harmful to one’s health.

Initial efforts to prohibit Japanese converts from bathing proved futile and were subsequently scaled back. From a complete ban to allowing a bath every two weeks, the missionaries finally conceded to permit their converts to bathe once a week. Unwittingly, Christian attempts to win over the non-converted Japanese were stifled by the fact that many Japanese saw the missionaries and their new supporters as unhygienic and smelly. A latterday parallel might be the Japanese view of Western bathing habits – namely, soaking in the tub without cleaning onself beforehand – as faintly repugnant.

In time the missionaries were expelled by the Tokugawa shogunate, and the natives continued to enjoy the pleasures of onsen. However, it was by no means a free-for-all: segregation often occurred between classes in the hierarchical order of samurai, peasants, artisans and merchants. No samurai, for example, would dishonor himself by bathing in the company of a merchant – a materialistic trade once regarded as at variance with core Neo-Confucian ethics such as frugality and modesty.

In 1709, Goto Konzan, an Edo (Tokyo) doctor, noticed the effectiveness of hot spring bathing as a cure for certain medical disorders and soon afterwards initiated the first medical study of hot springs. Since World War II, over 50 national hot spring hospitals have been established, and to this day onsen are used in the treatment of chronic diseases such as rheumatism and hypertension. The water in some aids the digestive system, and visitors may even drink it – of course, at a different temperature and from a different source. Onsen also function as treatment baths for external injuries, post-operative recovery and rehabilitation. For example, of the 14 basic different types of onsen water, gypsum springs (with their high calcium content) are effective in treating wounds and were often used over the centuries by samurai warriors in the aftermath of battles.

The once widespread practice of men and women sharing the same baths (usually large communal ones) survived the interference of missionaries, the Meiji reforms on bathing, and other social pressures. In the early 1950s, however, female Japanese parliamentarians – strengthened by post-war reforms and liberalization – pressured the reformed Diet to pass laws making it ‘compulsory’ for public baths to separate male and female baths. Today, the practice of mixed gender bathing continues, but it is purely optional. Indeed, an onsen’s rotenburo (an outdoor bath, usually blessed with a scenic backdrop) continues to be a favorite with many Japanese couples.

For those eager to experience the delights of onsen yet unwilling to bare all in the name of culture, there is hope: numerous free, outdoor onsen where bathing swimwear is permitted. One can pay for a considerably more expensive ‘private’ bath in many spa resorts. Better yet, visit an onsen ryokan (hotel) in the countryside at a quiet time of the year and you should be able to get the bath to yourself for the length of your stay, without any extra costs. For added encouragement, just take heart in the words of Michelangelo: "What spirit is so empty and blind that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful that the garment with which it is clothed?"