When I write about Japanese ‘onsen’ in English, I use the Japanese word ‘onsen’ rather than using any related foreign words such as ‘hot spring’ or ‘spa’ (as referred in this article).
I do this because I hope that the word ‘onsen’ will become a universal common word.
In English, there are similar words, such as ‘spa’ and ‘hot spring.’ Therefore, I’m writing about the differences between the meanings of ‘spa,’ the ‘hot spring,’ and ‘onsen.’
Firstly, I’ll talk about the meaning of ‘spa.’
As a lot of people might know, the origin of the word ‘spa’ stems from the name of a spa resort in Belgium called ‘spa.’
The definition of the word ‘spa’ in the English Wikipedia is: A spa is a location where mineral-rich spring water (and sometimes seawater) is used to give medicinal baths. Spa towns or spa resorts (including hot spring resorts) typically offer various health treatments, which are also known as balneotherapy.
spa (Dec. 6, 2019, 12:23UTC+9). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spa
Therefore, I think that it is used as a health improvement method or a medical treatment method with warm water containing some minerals.
It is very similar to a culture called “Touji”, a custom seen in Japan for a long time.
“Touji” is a body-healing method where you stay in an onsen resort for a relatively long period (one week or more), to soak in an onsen to heal your body. As detailed in this article(5 list of Onsen benefits and effects), Japanese Touji culture has been around four hundreds of years with various healing effects. As a side note, Touji is written in two Chinese characters(湯治), meaning to ‘heal with hot water.’
I think that the spa and the Japanese onsen have a lot in common.
The word “Shima” in our Shima Onsen means “forty-thousand.” In the original meaning, Shima Onsen is said to be an onsen with effects to heal forty-thousand diseases, so it may correctly apply to the definition of the spa.
About ‘Hot Spring’
Secondly, I’ll talk about the meaning of ‘hot spring.’
According to the English Wikipedia: “A hot spring is a spring produced by the emergence of geothermally heated groundwater that rises from the Earth’s crust.”
(Dec. 6, 2019, 12:29 UTC+9). In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_spring
However, there seems to be no clear definition of the water temperature as to whether it can be called a “hot” spring or not, while it always is for the Japanese onsen. It is safe to say that the spring water that has been warmed to some extent by geothermal heat can be called a hot spring.
Lastly, I’ll talk about the meaning of ‘Japanese onsen.’
The term ‘onsen’ has various meanings.
The word can refer to the onsen water itself, the (onsen) bath and the (onsen) area, and so on.
The onsen meaning as the onsen water is well-defined in Japan under the onsen law.
The onsen in Japan should meet the regulation set by the law requiring that either the temperature of the water be 25 degrees Celsius or above, or the water has a specified amount of minerals included.
I must mention that our Shima Onsen satisfies the conditions of the onsen law entirely in both terms of the temperature and the minerals.
Compared to the definition of ‘spa’ mentioned earlier, it is not necessarily a natural hot spring; it can also be used as an aesthetic salon amenity for beauty. I think that ‘spa’ and ‘onsen’ are slightly different in their definitions.
The definition of ‘hot spring’ and ‘onsen’ are slightly different as well. The onsen can still be classified as onsen even if the temperature of the water is low, as long as it contains minerals, the rules of which are less strict, compared to the regulation of hot spring.
As I write about the differences between ‘spa,’ ‘hot spring,’ and ‘onsen,’ I think all three are very similar, but not the same.
So, I will continue to use the word “Onsen” mainly rather than the other related terms from the perspective of the distinctive Japanese culture.
Since our Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan is a tattoo-friendly onsen ryokan, people with tattoos can bathe in all of the available onsens without hindrance.
However, many Japanese onsen spots and bathhouses still forbid entry to those with tattoos, and there are not so many tattoo-friendly onsens.
Will the time come for more and more onsens to cater to people with ink, and will the phrase “tattoo-friendly onsen” itself become obsolete?
In Japan, there is still a stigma attached to those with tattoos because many criminals and anti-social forces had tattoos in the past. As is seen in old Japanese traditional customs, there is an old-age association of people with ink with criminals and anti-social groups.
I wrote about it in my previous article( Are people with tattoos allowed in onsen? ), so I’d be happy if you referred to it.
On the other hand, Japanese bathing culture has long been established where you can take a large bath with others at an onsen or a bathhouse.
In Japan, the word “hadaka-no-tsukiai,” or “naked relationship” in English, means being able to talk and have a close relationship with others at an onsen or a bathhouse. The bath is a place to have excellent communication and functions as a semipublic place.
Because of tattoos marking nefarious elements in Japanese society, they aren’t suitable for these bathhouses as they cannot cater to people with tattoos. For that reason, a large number of onsen ryokans, day-trip onsen facilities, and bathhouses typically have a “no tattoos allowed” policy.
Unfortunately, as of 2019, the number of tattoo-friendly onsens is still limited.
However, times are changing significantly.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the number of travellers visiting Japan from other countries has increased rapidly due to the effects of our national policies. Previously, the number was just under five million a year, but now it is over thirty million annually and has been continuing to rise.
Their purposes for travelling Japan are varied, such as Japanese food, visiting scenic spots, shopping, etc. Bathing in an onsen is also one of the biggest reasons.
Inevitably, the “no tattoos allowed” policy becomes a significant problem for travellers.
So, people discuss it on forums of travel-related websites, such as Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor. “I have tattoos, but can I still enjoy Japanese onsen?” and so on.
The Rugby World Cup was held in Japan this year (2019) and was the first Asian nation ever to hold the World Cup. A lot of leading rugby teams have many athletes who have tattoos as a part of their traditional culture, so the organisation that supervised the competition encouraged the athletes to hide their tattoos in public places. It gained prominent attention as a symbol of cultural conflict. You can find many related articles when you search the phrase “rugby tattoo.”
Many athletes have tattoos, not only rugby players but also other sports players. In preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, which will be held next year (2020), the Japanese government is trying to increase the number of foreign tourists as a significant national policy. We must solve the tattoo problem in onsens urgently.
Unlike the time when most of the onsen spots accommodated mainly Japanese people, now it is time for onsens to relax their policies regarding their clients’ ink to adapt more onsen lovers coming in from all around the globe to seek Japanese onsens.
Otherwise, I am genuinely concerned that our world-famous Japanese onsen culture will close its doors to the world, and only Japanese people will be able to enjoy it.
According to a survey conducted in 2015 by the Japan Tourism Agency, only 30% of onsens and bathhouse facilities were unconditionally tattoo-friendly. I heard that the number has been improving these days.
I strongly hope that “tattoo-friendly onsens” will become the norm in the next few years and this phrase will become obsolete.
Lastly, I will introduce tattoo-friendly onsen ryokans, and so on.
Since anyone can enjoy a private onsen or a room with a private open-air bath（Rotenburo) without any restrictions or concerns, everyone from anywhere around the world can be satisfied with them.
Kashiwaya Ryokan is tattoo-friendly, so anyone can enjoy and participate. But if people would prefer some privacy, they can hire a private onsen or a room with a private open-air bath to further enjoy the experience.
Onsens are an integral part of Japanese culture, therefore, visiting and experiencing an onsen is a big purpose in coming to Japan for many people.
However, there are many different types of baths with different purposes and restrictions, so it may be confusing for tourists who are not used to our customs and culture.
Today, I will talk about all different types of onsen.
Today, we will be introducing the etiquette of visiting hot springs(Onsen) in Japan.
It is no exaggeration to say that Japan is known as the World No.1 hot spring country.
There are 2983 Onsen (hot spring) towns, and there are 27297 hot spring locations all over Japan.
There is a description about hot springs in Japan’s oldest history book, ‘Kojiki’, that was compiled in 700 A.D. From this we can tell that hot spring culture has been with Japanese people for a long time.
In the long history of Onsen, Japan’s own hot spring culture has changed, and in that culture, there are manners and etiquette that people follow to try not to cause any troubles for other hot spring users.
Let’s see the manners and etiquette of using hot springs in Japan with a little bit of jokes then!
So many people are questioning whether they can go to hot springs in Japan if they have a tattoo.
We, ‘Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan’, are tattoo friendly. Therefore, anyone with or without tattoos can enjoy all of our hot springs. However, there can be no doubt that many hot spring places do not accept people with tattoos.
Please read the article ‘hot spring and tattoo’ for the further details.
Japan is world-renowned for its abundance of ski resorts and top-notch powder snow.
Niseko in Hokkaido and Hakuba in Nagano are particularly popular among international visitors and residents.
In fact, many come to and live in Japan for the sole purpose of enjoying some of the best slopes in the world.
Of course, some visitors may have other things in mind when visiting.
Some prefer just a taste of the snow while enjoying the scenery, shopping, or onsen. Shima Onsen offers the perfect solution to such visitors.
Although there are no ski resorts in the direct vicinity of Shima Onsen, it takes a mere 2 hours by car to get to the world-class slopes in Naeba or the powdered dreamland of Karuizawa.
Imagine taking a day-trip to a snowboarder’s paradise and returning to relax your weary muscles in Shima Onsen’s healing waters.
For international visitors who decide to rent a car, such a day-trip could be the perfect way to spend your time here at Shima Onsen.
Read on for more information on the many ski resorts in the Shima Onsen Area!
Naeba Ski Resort is a world-renowned ski resort which has hosted the Alpine Ski World Cup in the past.
Although located in the neighboring Niigata Prefecture, the ski resort is surprisingly close—only an hour and a half by car!
Just take the Kan-Etsu Expressway’s Tsukiyono Interchange (IC) to get there in a flash.
Previously, we wrote an article about how traveling by rental car gives you significantly more options on how to enjoy yourself once you arrive in a hot spring area, since there are many picturesque sightseeing locations around hot spring areas like ours that are inaccessible by public transportation.
Today, we wanted to share some more delightful news for international visitors who plan to travel Japan by rental car!
Starting October 13, 2017, you can purchase a pass that allows you unlimited access to expressways all across Japan.
It’s called the Japan Expressway Pass, and it will cost 20,000 yen for 7 days or 34,000 yen for 14 days of unlimited access.
The pass will be available at 275 rental car shops across Japan.
Unfortunately, you cannot purchase the pass in Gunma Prefecture, which is where Shima Onsen is located.
However, it will be available at rental car shops in Haneda Airport and Narita Airport, which are the airports closest to Shima Onsen, as well as in other major international airports.
People with non-Japanese passports and Japanese citizens with permanent residence in other countries will be eligible to use this pass.
(Please note that you will also need a driver’s license that allows you to drive in Japan.)
All you need to do in advance is reserve an expressway electronic toll collection (ETC) card and a rental car that is compatible with the Japanese Expressway Pass from a shop that offers the pass.
Pick up your rental car from the shop on the day of your reservation, and please enjoy a pleasant journey by car.
(Please note that the pass cannot be used on expressways in certain areas, such as the Tokyo metropolitan area or Hokkaido.)
Traveling Japan by car allows you to enjoy the countryside that cannot be accessed by public transportation, so your trip is sure to be a deeply memorable one!
Japan Expressway Pass: Click here for more details
The total number of lodgers who came from foreign countries to Japan reached a record 70 million in 2016.
80% of them stayed in descending order in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Chiba, Fukuoka, Aichi and Kanagawa prefecture.
Most of these regions are known for sightseeing, and are destinations on the “Golden Route”.
Meanwhile, the numbers of lodgers staying in Gunma prefecture where Shima Onsen is were just 210,000, 0.3% of the total.
(From the statistical survey by Japan Tourism Agency)
To get more visitors from foreign countries, we the managers of small onsen ryokans in the countryside are working hard to attract them.
The Japanese government helps us by promoting rural areas as nice places to visit and also help enhance community revitalization.
For example, according to ‘Tourism Vision to Support the Future of Japan’ drawn up by the Japan Tourism Agency in 2016, the Japanese government is actively making a plan which aims to double the number of foreign tourists visiting the countryside in Japan by 2020.
With this, the amount of money spent by foreign tourists in Japan is estimated to more than double from about JPY 3.5 trillion in 2015 to JPY 8 trillion by 2020.
(From the survey by the Japan Tourism Agency & Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management)
The Japan Tourism Agency gives tourists information about recommended tourist routes in the countryside, such as hot spring tours, visiting Japanese Sake breweries.
The Japanese government has started to support improvements to local areas which encourage foreign tourism.
Questionnaires filled out by foreign tourists who visited Japan for the first time showed that the tours they would like to do next were ones in which they could experience nature, fishing or rural areas, the four seasons, Japanese history, and the traditional cultures in the countryside.
This indicates they take more interest in the countryside and rural areas in Japan.
(From the survey by the Japan Tourism Agency)
There are many kinds of regional unique sceneries, food cultures, and onsen cultures in Japan.
Japan has wide range of climate conditions because of its length from north to south.
Japan also has a long history.
This history and climate affect the Japanese culture and landscape which can still be seen in the countryside and rural areas, but is sometimes difficult to see in the urban environment.
For example, you can enjoy beautiful nature like the amazing blue water of the Shima river which is called “Shima Blue“, In this region you can experience onsen culture as it was after the war, feel a peaceful atmosphere not found in big cities, and communicate with the warm hearted people of Shima Onsen.
However, we have some problems we have to resolve when hosting foreign tourists who don’t speak Japanese.
Public transportation information for coming to the countryside is insufficient.
We need more signs and guides in English and other foreign languages.
Currently we are developing communication systems like Wi-Fi in the countryside.