Oita, Japan: Onsens in a Varied, Beautiful Landscape
By Megan Mentuck
Oita is a prefecture located on the island of Kyushu, Japan, bordered by both the pacific ocean and the Sea of Japan. The area is famously known for its “onsens” or hot springs; these hot, mineral-rich waters are perfect for visitors to relax in during their stay.————-
Part of what makes Oita such an interesting place is its varied and beautiful landscape. Countrysides, coastal planes, waterfalls, mountain ranges, and even active volcanoes make up the region’s complex topography.
However, of all the natural environmental features of the island, the “onsens” or natural hot springs, remain the most common attraction among tourists.
According to the national public service official website, hot springs are “heated by geothermal heat—heat from the Earth’s interior” and are common “in volcanic areas [where] water may come into contact with very hot rock heated by magma.”
These fascinating natural phenomena make for great immersive experiences for visitors and locals alike in the Oita region.
“Onsens” and Food
GoNOMAD spoke with Hiromichi Ishida who works with the tourism board of Oita. Ishida told me that Oita is the “number one onsen area in Japan.” He also let me know that because of Oita’s location to the sea and unique environment, the food in the area is especially good.
The climate makes for great farming which yields tasty vegetables and the area’s proximity to the sea provides locals and visitors with great seafood, as well.
Beyond the environment yielding yummy ingredients, the steam created by the hot springs offers a different way to actually cook the food too!
This access to both tasty ingredients and a unique way to cook may explain why the Oita area is home to five Michelin one-star restaurants and two Michelin two-star restaurants.
The Hell Tour
In addition to onsens offering a unique way to experience food, they also provide visitors with a compelling visual “Hell Tour.”
The “Hell Onsens” are hot springs that despite reaching hellish temperatures, are popular destinations for tourists to visit due to their interesting properties and appearances.
The “Jigoku Meguri” or roughly translated “Hell Tour” allows visitors to view seven different onsens in the Beppu region that, if bathed in, would result in serious harm or injury.
The seven jigokus or hells are each unique from one another, boasting different shades of colors, textures, and properties.
The “Blood Pond Hell” stands out as the most striking among the other six with naturally red waters due to the high levels of Iron and Magnesium. Despite being the most visually Hellish, the “Blood Pond Hell” is actually the coolest.
Bathing in the Onsens
Although onsens provide a unique way to cook and a “Hell Tour” of simmering springs, their most alluring property is their unique ability to offer a relaxing and even healing experience for visitors.
In Japan, balneotherapy—or the process of treating ailments with bathing, is becoming increasingly popular.
Bathing in onsens depending on their chemical composition is a great way to practice balneotherapy.
There are eleven different types of onsens determined by their chemical composition: Simple Springs, Chloride Springs, Carbonated Springs, Sulphate Springs, Carbon Dioxide Springs, Ferruginous Springs, Aluminum Springs, Acidic Springs, Iodine-Containing Springs, Sulphur Springs, and Radioactive Springs.
Of these eleven types of onsens, the Oita region is home to ten
Each type of onsen or “spring” has unique healing properties—so if you have an ache or ailment you haven’t been able to fix, it may be worth researching the different onsens available and planning your bathing accordingly!
You can even practice “Kinou-onsenyoku” which is “a bathing method that expects a synergistic effect by combining different spring water qualities.”
In other words, it is when someone bathes in more than one type of onsen in a day so that the properties of those two types of onsens combined offer an even more effective healing experience.
Proper Bathing Etiquette: Getting Ready
Before visiting an onsen, it’s important to be aware of bathing etiquette so that you can enjoy your experience as respectfully as possible.
Prior to arriving at the onsen, you wish to visit, make sure to bring a towel or call ahead to see if they are available at the establishment.
If you have a tattoo, you may also want to check with the establishment to see if that is alright seeing as many onsen establishments are wary of visitors with tattoos.
However, with the growing popularity of onsen visits by foreign tourists, some establishments have become more relaxed in their rules. In fact, there are hundreds of onsens that allow entry of tattooed people!
The most important thing to note is that if you have a tattoo, you should reach out to the establishment prior to your visit to ensure everything runs smoothly.
Soaking It Up
Upon arrival, you will notice that there are different bathing areas: one for men and one for women. These will be designated by a sign and are usually accompanied by either a blue or purple drape for men and a pink or red drape for women.
Before entering the onsens, you will have to bathe yourself, being thorough in completely rinsing off all soaps and suds. After thoroughly washing, you are ready to enjoy the onsens.
Also, because everyone’s tolerance to heat is different, it’s a good idea to feel the temperature of the water first before going right in.
Enjoying these natural wonders is a great way to relax and unwind while also partaking in something beneficial for your skin and health!
Plan Your Visit
Hot springs, beyond providing enjoyable and relaxing experiences, also have beneficial qualities that come along with them.
Soaking in their nutrient-dense water is a great way to both refresh and revitalize your body.
When you plan your visit, also be sure to check out the different travel deals offered to tourists. For example, a Japanese railroad pass is only 250$ and offers users unlimited travel for one week.
There are also a few different Japanese airlines that offer special deals to visitors flying into the Oita area.
“Have a blast!”
There are so many reasons to plan your visit to Oita, Japan today. When I asked Ishida what he’d suggest doing in the Oita region to a first-time visitor, he responded by saying “First, have a blast! Then enjoy the local food.” And, I think that about sums it up!
A visit to the Oita region of Japan not only provides visitors with natural hot springs but also with beautiful sights and delicious food as well as a charming culture and hospitable community.