Onsen or hot springs are a popular travel destination in Japan. Due to its location on the ring of fire, there are thousands of onsen resorts and ryokan (traditional inns) throughout the country. They’re visited regularly by locals as well as foreign tourists interested in Japanese culture.
Visiting Japan’s spa resorts and soaking in onsens is a one-of-a-kind holistic wellness experience. For Japanese people, bathing isn’t just for cleaning their bodies. It’s also a way to calm the mind, cleanse the spirit, and improve health.
Since traveling outside the U.S. has been made difficult due to the pandemic, it’s going to be hard to make a trip to an authentic Japanese onsen anytime soon. In the meantime, though, why not try to recreate the onsen experience at home?
All you need are a bathtub and a few essentials. Here’s how you can do it.
Take a Shower
Onsen visitors are required to wash their bodies before entering the water. This is done not just to keep the water clean but also to make it easier for your skin to soak up the onsen’s minerals.
Before you enter the tub, take a thorough shower or pour water on your head and body using a small, wooden bucket. Lather on Japanese beauty soap, such as Cow Brand milk soap, and use an exfoliating towel. You can also use a scented body scrub to remove dead skin cells, as well as sweat and dirt.
If you want a truly authentic onsen experience, consider purchasing a shower stool. You can find ones made of Hinoki or Japanese cypress online, in a variety of price points. A shower stool lets you relax while you scrub, making what is usually a hurried process more decadent.
Set the Scene
Dim the lights, and light a few sticks of Japanese incense or scented candles. To get you in a more relaxed frame of mind, put on some soothing music—you can find several onsen-inspired playlists on Spotify and Deezer.
Turn off your phone or at least put it on silent. If necessary, stop other household members from knocking by putting a “do not disturb” sign on your bathroom door.
Draw a Hot Bath
An onsen usually has baths that can seat several people at a time , but for your at-home onsen, your bathtub will do. Draw a bath, and make it a little hotter than usual. It’s vitally important for the water to be hot, as it’s the heat of the onsen that soothes sore muscles and joints. If your running water doesn’t get much more than warm, then you should consider a hot water heater replacement.
Add Mineral Bath Salts
A Japanese onsen naturally contains minerals. In fact, baths are categorized according to the minerals they contain. Some baths have high sulphur content (io sen), others have sodium bicarbonate (ansan suiso ensen). Others classified as chloride springs (enka butsusen) have calcium, salt, and magnesium.
Mineral-infused water is believed by many Japanese as having therapeutic properties. Certainly, soaking in an onsen is deeply restorative, relaxing your mind and melting away the day’s stress. It’s also great for your skin! Research suggests that soaking in mineral hot springs can make skin softer, more supple, and more moisturized.
To reap the benefits of a mineral-infused bath, add specialty bath salts or tablets to the water. These dissolve immediately, releasing minerals into the water and a relaxing aroma into the air.
You can also use Japanese bath powder. The Japanese cosmetics brand Kracie makes Tabi no Yado, a collection of bath powders inspired by Japanese onsen regions. These work the same way as bath salts—just toss some into your bathwater before you soak.
A Hint of Citrus
During the winter solstice, many ryokans in Japan throw yuzu (Japanese citron) into the baths. A yuzu bath is believed to bring good luck in the coming year. It’s also said to prevent colds and nourish the skin.
Yuzu has a refreshing and uplifting aroma, making it a wonderful, energizing addition to your onsen-inspired bath. However, if you can’t find yuzu where you live, you can substitute it with orange peel in a small cotton bag.
Soak Up the Goodness
This is the fun part. Slip into the tub, and soak for at least 15 minutes. If you feel that the water is too hot, submerge the lower half of your body first. Once you’re acclimated, you can soak up to your shoulders.
Let the day’s worries go, and just focus on the sensation of heat and the wonderful aromas of incense and citrus that surround you.
Don’t stay too long in the water, though, tempting as it may be. Some experts say that the longest you should soak in an onsen is 40 minutes. Beyond that, you could start feeling woozy from heat fatigue.
Also, you can take breaks in between dips. For instance, you can soak for 10 minutes, have a drink and a snack, then get back into the tub for another 10 minutes.
Don’t Forget to Rehydrate
The heat of the bath can make you perspire more than usual. Be sure to replenish lost fluids, or you might get a headache after your soak.
Many Japanese people love to rehydrate with sweet coffee milk, which is commonly sound in hot springs resorts. Fruit milk, carbonated cider, cold water, and green tea are also popular options.
After Your Bath
Once you’re done soaking, slip out of the bath. If you have sensitive skin, rinse off with warm water. Don’t use soap, as this will remove the minerals and nutrients from your skin. If possible, allow your skin to air-dry; otherwise, use a towel.
End on a Sweet Note
In Japan, it’s customary to enjoy a dessert after a dip in an onsen. Some simple Japanese desserts you can do at home are coffee jelly, mochi or sweet rice cake, and dorayaki, a pancake-like sandwich with red bean filling. You can also order Japanese sweets and wagashi from many online retailers.
An at-home onsen experience can restore calmness and leave you feeling refreshed for hours after. After your soak, enjoy your newfound serenity—take a nap, curl up with a good book, or listen to music to maintain your Zen.