Travel deeper into the world of onsen

, by Ayaka

Discover the cultural significance of onsen to Japanese and why Hokkaido's onsen are so very special in the context of adventure travel.

A wooden bath tub filled with water at Asahidake Onsen

For over a millennia, natural hot springs or as we call them in Japanese, onsen have played an integral part in Japanese culture and society. Since its inception, onsen have been considered as a gift from the gods. With its numerous healing properties for both the body and mind, you’ll be hard pressed to find a Japanese person who doesn’t like bathing in the hot waters of a natural hot spring.

Home to over 3,000 onsen resorts dotted throughout the country, Japan has easily one of the largest concentrations of thermal hot springs in the world. In fact, 244 exist right here in our home, Hokkaido, making this island an onsen paradise. We are spoiled for choice when it comes to these healing waters. However, you may be wondering what makes an onsen different from one another? What do the Japanese people look for in a natural hot spring? Read on to get a local’s perspective and go one step deeper into the world of onsen.

源泉掛け流し - Pure, Untreated Spring Water

There are a number of qualities the Japanese look for in an exceptional onsen experience from the minerals naturally found in the hot waters to the location of these miracle waters. However, for the locals of Hokkaido, “gensen kakenagashi” is the deciding factor.  Locals will often check whether the waters of the hot spring are free-flowing or not, in other words if the waters come directly from a natural underground source. One characteristic of a gensen kakenagashi onsen is that the water overflows from the baths when not in use. This also allows the baths to stay clean with the natural force of flowing water. By only using 100% natural spring water, the concentration of minerals and other components in a gensen kakenagashi onsen stay high and prevents the promised health and beauty effects of the onsen from being compromised.

After taking a dip in a gensen kakenagashi onsen, we recommend towel-drying your body afterwards rather than taking a shower. This will help keep the mineral components on your skin as long as possible and enhance their effects.

飲泉 - Soak Up and Drink the Benefits of Onsen

An alternative way to get health benefits from onsen is “insen”, which is the practise of drinking hot spring water for medical purposes. In Japan, we have a whole culture dedicated to drinking onsen water to cure a variety of illnesses, known as ‘Toji’. Insen is just one small part of Toji culture. Hot spring water is said to be effective in treating anemia, rheumatism, obesity, diabetes, gout and chronic digestive tract disorders. Although insen is said to be good for your health, not all hot springs are created equal and only a portion of them are certified for consumption. Care must be taken to ensure that the quality of the water is at a safe standard for consumption and that the water will not further exacerbate the symptoms of one’s individual illness or condition. Before drinking the water, it is best to check whether the quality is safe. If you find yourself in a small, local hot spring with no English signs, be sure to ask someone nearby if you can drink the water there.

高地 - Location, Location, Location

The last piece of local insight is about the location of the hot spring, specifically the altitude or elevation of the onsen. The higher the onsen is located, the greater the health benefits are. It is said that with a lower atmospheric pressure, it helps stimulate the hematopoietic function of the bone marrow. In turn, this also increases the amount of hemoglobin and red blood cells in blood which is just the thing for people with hypotension. On top of this, just like high-altitude training for any sports, high-altitude onsen can help strengthen heart and lung functions without having to work so hard!

The only problem left now is with all the great hot springs to visit in Hokkaido, how does one decide where to start?

旭岳温泉- Relax in Asahidake Onsen

You can enjoy all of these benefits in one convenient location, Asahidake Onsen. Asahidake Onsen offers a generous variety of onsen inns to suit all travellers and their budgets. Amongst the seven onsen inns, four are open to day visitors in the afternoon hours; Bear Monte, La Vista, Shirakabasou, and Yukomansou. These are all gensen kakenagashi and are situated at 1,100m above sea level. Some also offer insen inside the onsen.

We highly recommend checking out Yukomansou, a local favourite. This is the most popular onsen in the area for its rich history and incredible selection of baths. Yukomansou Onsen offers a total of 17 baths throughout the main and annex buildings. The admission fares are set separately for the main (1,500yen) and the annex (800yen), so make sure you ask for the admission for the main building to get the most out of your visit.

While the views, minerals and designs are unique to every Japanese onsen found in Hokkaido, they each share an intangible connection to nature. Treat yourself inside out!