When the Japanese salary men dream of isolation, they do not dream of exotic beaches. They dream about the onsen, the natural hot springs in Japan.
It is no exaggeration to say that the onsen are the Japanese national obsession. Many Japanese go to the onsen at least a couple of times a year.
In many onsen, you need to be naked to get into the water. Traditionally, onsen were born without distinction of sex, but during the process of Westernization began in 1860, the onsen open to males and females at the same time became more and more rare.
Over 95% of Japanese onsen now have separate bathrooms for men and women. Only children can accompany the parent regardless of gender.
The onsen are also a valid reason to visit the towns of rural Japan. Many charming villages and entire cities would not exist without the economy created by the onsen.
Families, friends, couples, co-workers, group outings and international tourists flock to the onsen throughout the year.
Where to Find the Onsen
There are about 120 thousand onsen in Japan. These can be found in hotels, ryokan, guest houses, and resorts.
In many cases, the onsen are little more than natural pools, or man-made, which do not have any kind of additional service.
Other onsen instead are huge complexes with dozens of pools and a variety of additional services (restaurants, karaoke, game rooms, etc.).
The onsen can also be found in big cities (see Tokyo), however the vast majority of the onsen are located in rural areas and in the countryside.
Resort towns such as Atami and Hakone near Tokyo have hundreds of onsen.
See below some examples of popular kind of onsen.
In the cold and dreary days of winter in Japan, the Japanese dream is a calm outdoor onsen in the mountains with lots of snow falling all around.
The rotenburo are the outdoor onsen. Usually the rotenburo are preferred to onsen indoors, just because of the experience closely linked to nature.
Many rotenburo have magnificent views of mountains, forests or facing the ocean. In the northern regions of Japan rotenburo are surrounded by snow during the winter months.
Some rotenburo exist naturally, while others have been built in an ad hoc man-made resort or hotel.
The best rotenburo are built with natural materials such as wood and stone, to better integrate with the surrounding environment and are generally constructed so as to be hidden away from prying eyes.
The sento (public baths) are similar to the onsen except for the water that is heated artificially.
The water of the sento is usually tap water without many mineral properties.
Sento are easily found in urban areas.
In ancient times the Japanese houses had no bathroom, and so every neighborhood had a sento.
The sento in practice were considered a primary zone of the neighborhood where to meet.
Nowadays all the houses have their own bathroom, but despite this the number of sento continue to grow and develop.