In Japan, bathing in the steaming natural waters of onsens, or hot springs, is an age-old national obsession and popular tourist draw. The country’s native religion, Shintoism, teaches that the mind, soul and body need to be regularly cleansed, and it is no wonder that thousands of Japanese regularly travel from every corner of the country to find respite in the 26,796 ancient pools dotted across the Japanese archipelago.
Hakone's onsen obsession
The lakeside town of Hakone is at the heart of Mount Fuji’s onsen hot spots. The onsens of Hakone were originally used as a hybrid between public baths and places of relaxation. There is a tradition in Hakone, and across the Fuji region, of “naked communion,” where locals and visitors alike let their inhibitions go as everyone shares a serene bath together surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery. Even the local monkeys like to sneak in a quick swim.
Bathing is a common prescription in Japan for all kinds of ailments, both physical and mental. The four types of naturally occurring onsens—sulphur, sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate and iron—each promote healing of various pains and illnesses. This therapeutic tradition of balneotherapy aims to harmonize health.
The Tenzan onsen incorporates a historic Japanese bathing house amid thousand-year-old forests and mountains. Inside the wooden bathhouse, there is virtually no light, so the body can escape the hot midday sun and the mind can avoid any distractions from the outside world. Shintoism teaches that the mind should be allowed to wander freely for regeneration.
In Hakone Yuryo, built on the site of a former begonia garden, family and private baths are available. Bathing in the mineral-rich pools with the scents of rare local fowers filling the air ignites the imagination.
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Joe Worthington is a travel writer and editor based in the United Kingdom.