Tag Archives: Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen

Japanese breakfast at 8am. I get used to it. The time; and the taste. At 9am I start the sightseeing tour. The temperature is still at 17°F and I don’t need gloves. Amazing. It is freezing cold but sunny and warm at the same time. First stop is the post office. Money. It is first day that is not a holiday. Money.

The Yubatake is like yesterday. Amazing and with a strong smell of brimstone. The fount is at the top. The water is running down long wooden channels. The water is cooling down and the brimstone precipitates. Yunohana. It it sold as medicine for a good price.


At 10:30am is a presentation of a traditional way to cool down water. All you need are a lot of long paddles and the same amount of beautiful japanese women. They stir up the hot water. The show also offers some traditional dances and songs. It is some kind of working song to syncronize the movement of the paddles. At the end of the show the tourist can try it. Nice show but the 500 yen are a little bit expensive.

So. That was the must-have-seen program of this town. I visit the shrine nearby. Like always there are many stairs involved. After that a bus brings me to a station in the mountains. Because I habe no clue, I get of at the wrong place; at the valley station the first rope way. But here I learn that the second ropeway uphill is closed due to heavy wind. Looks like the summit is no option anymore. I decide to walk. It is a 2,5 miles walk. Who cares. I have plenty of time. I try to walk off road but it is impossible. I sink waste-deep into the snow.

At the upper station the wind really is strong and stiring up the powder like snow. I have to learn skiing. It is a 1,5 mile ride downhill and the weather is amazing. After a short break I start the way back.

Sainokawara Rotenburo (Foto: Lori Kusatsu, cc-Lizenz)

After I figured out where I am, I walk to Sainokawara-Rotenburo. It is a public onsen with a really big outdoor tub. And it is not located in a city but outside in nature. This place is awesome. (No cameras allowed inside, therefore a picture from a website.) The inflow is at the rear end of the pond. With 140°F the water is running down the stones.  At my side the temperature is less boiling and more comfy (104°F). You can adjust the temperature by moving forth and back in the pond. The japanese know how to relax. It is snowing.

After the bath I walk back to the town center for some shopping. Dinner is at 6pm. Many tiny cups filled with delicious stuff. Wow, it is always plenty of food. The day ends in the rotenburo of the hotel. And like yesterday followed by a visit in the izakaya and another round in the onsen.

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Bessho Onsen

Japanese Breakfast at 8:30am; with ham and eggs. Maybe because I am a gaijin. The sake is served because of New Year. Check-out is scheduled for 11am. Plenty of time for onsen. I ask the hotel clerk to give me a little bit of money for my ride to Ueda and charge my credit card. The ATM are still offline. I will take care of all the fees. After a short discussion I get 10.000 yen. The last 400yen in my pocket are not even enough for the train to Ueda.

I also can store my stuff at the counter. That gives me 90 minutes to explore Bessho. At the temple are still running New Year celebrations. The main street is closed. Booths with food and other stuff. Matsuri (festival) feeling.

Next stop is the octagonal pagoda with a Kannon; the Kannon can not be seen. And the rest of the temple is more or less a construction site. Further to the O-yu, a public bath. Don’t expect too much. It is more or less a bath room, not a spa. But it is relaxing. After that I do a brief stop  at a cafe. The owner roasts his own coffee blends. A little bit expensive, but for sure unique. At 2pm I pick up my stuff and thank all the people there many times for all the help.

Back in Ueda I have some time to visit the remains of the castle. There is not much to see. They rebuilt a part of the gate, the wall and the corner towers. The old merchant street is not far away. It is a short street with 10 houses. Here is a bakery, that is run by a friend of the coffee shop owner. A good place for a short break.

The shinkansen brings me to Take-something-town where I change into a local. 90 minutes later I arrive in a place called Naganoharakusatsuguchi. The bus to Kusatsu is already waiting. I like Japan. Connections are always working. Cool Snow. The display says 18°F. Then there is a street section with grooves. The tires are playing a song! But I cannot identify it.

The bus arrives in Kusatsu. It is snowing. The streets are white. Perfect. I walk to the hotel. I only now the basic direction. But I am confident. I walk down the street half a mile and ask in a conbini (convenient store). 50yards further I have to turn right. It is that simple. And there is a big sign at the junction too. I check-in; including the standard introduction into the onsen rules.

I walk into city center. A quiet walk thru tiny streets covered with snow. Yubate. The big onsen the town is famous for. 17°F. And it is still snowing. I wear a cap but no gloves. But I am “nordisch” (nordic). The view is impressive (I expected smoething smaller). The smell is too. Waft of mist are floating over the onsen. Brimstone. I take pictures. This is what I wanted. That is what I was looking for. Cold weather, snow, hot springs, remote places at night.

The next stop is a izakaya. My fingers and the autofocus of the camera are frozen stiff. Bulls eye. Good food, good sake and good company. The daughter of the owner was in Germany for a student exchange. She was in Bietigheim-Bissingen. Why there? In this one-horse town? I learn: It is the partner city of Kusatsu. And that there is a long tradition between these two palces.

At 11pm I return to the ryokan. There I enjoy the winter night. Sitting in a rotenburo. THe water is not that hot because of the temperature outside. I have some sake with me. It is snowing. I can explain how great this moment is. Sitting in a onsen, outside the house, while it is snowing. This is a lifestyle I could get used to.

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Onsen (part III) – Rules

It doesn’t if it is a onsen, ofuro, yu, rotenburo or the public bath room in a hotel: There are some very simple rules to follow. You should follow them unless you want to look like a complete idiot or be expelled from the bath. The rules are very simply. No need to worry.

  • If you are in Rome (Japan), do it like the Romans (Japanese).

This is not a real rule, but more like a very good advise. Be always low-key (Japanese appreciate self-effacement) und observe how the other behave. You will learn very quick how to act properly. If there is personal around, ask them for guidance. They will help.

Why? Japanese appreciate if foreign people try to learn, understand and follow their rules. They know that it is impossible to learn all the rules. It is important that you try, and if you do mistake, learn and do not redo the mistake again. Because the rules are important for Japanese, they will help you. This rule doesn’t aplly only for onsen, but for all in Japan.

  • Take of your shoes.

Like in Japanese houses you take of the shoes at the entrance. The border line is a smal step close to the door. In big sento like the Oedo onsen in Tokyo will will change into indoor slippers, that are always to small for European feet.

  • Take a shower before you enter the bath tub.

The bath tub is not for cleaning yourself but only for heat up and relax. You have to take shower before and after bathing in the tub. Take a shower very thorougly. There should no soap or shampoo be left on your body.

  • Sit down in the shower.

During the shower you sit on a small stool. Do not stand in the shower and avoid to hit other people with your water. There is a Japanese basic rule behind it: Never ever bother other people with your existance.

  • The small towel always stays out of the bath tub.

If you see a Japanese with a towel, you can be sure that this is not the washing towel from the shower. But there are also many Japanese ignoring this rule. This doesn’t mean that you should do the same. The best position for the towel (not the one from the shower) is on the head. In winter time in a rotenburo this has the advantage that the head is protected against the cold.

  • After the bath towel yourself thoroughly before going to the changing room.
  • Remember: It is a bathing house not a swimming pool.

You take a bath. You are not swimming around or jump into the water. You take the bath naked. Therefore men and women are seperated.

  • In most onsen people with a tatoo are not allowed to enter.

This is due to the history of tatoos in Japan. Only Yakuza (Japanese mafia) had tatoos. This ban also include tine tatoos on your shoulder or ankle and also applies to foreign people. There are onsen that are very strict and other that don’t mind a small western style tatoo. But one thing is sure: Never start an argument. An no is a no.

Of course there are sento that allow tatoos. But these are run by the yakuza. If you take a bath there, you are in company of mobster. I really doubt that you will find such a sento or even get into it.

  • It is also not allowed to enter if you have a skin desease or an open wound.

There are many more of these rules. But they are minor and it is not a big deal if you don’t know them. Just learn them by experience. But if you don’t obey the rules above you can get yourself into big trouble. If you did a mistake: Say that you are sorry and promise to behave better in the future. (Notice that not knowing the rules is also bad behaviour in Japan.) Most of the Japanese are reacting positive to an excuse, if they see that your are honestly sorry. Use this situation for small talk. You usually et more information and advices how to behave correctly and not drop an clanger.

Awesome Rotenburo

Netsu no Yu (熱の湯)

Stay away from Netsu-no-yu. These are extremly hot onsen. Even a normal one is a challange for western people, because of temperature between 108 and 113°F. A Nestu-no-yu brings it up to 130°F. The water may be cooled down but it is still to hot for unexperienced people. If you are not used to this kind of heat you will give up if your foot is touching the water or you may faint because the circulation collapse.


Another good advice: Sake and onsen do not match, even if they have the same temperature. There are many anime and manga where you see people in the tub with sake floating around in a wooden bucket. Beside this bucket itself is not allowed in the tub it is also a stupid idea: The heat of the water makes you getting up sooner or later to cool down, but the sake at these temperature makes you sit down before you faint. This really is a challange for your body you shouldn’t underestimate. I tried it. Believe me: It’s a stupid idea.

And never try to bring a camera into a sento and take pictures. This is not only a very big fail on good behaviour but can bring you in deep trouble as well. It is a felony. All my picuteres were taken with the ok of the owner and after alle other guests left the onsen, usually after closing time If you want to take picture, ask politely at the front desk and let yourself accompanied by a member of the staff.

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Onsen (part II) – terms around onsen

A Ofuro (風呂) is just a simple bath room with a tub. Hotels use this term sometimes to indicate that they provide more than a simple shower room. A Rotenburo (露天風呂) is bath tub outside under the free sky.

The terms “Private Rotenburo” and “Private Onsen” I have to explain. You take the bath naked. A onsen is a bath room and not a swimming pool. Therefore men and women are strictly seperated into different sections. The only exception is for small children that are accompanied by only one parent. If you traveling with your partner, even if you are married, you cannot take a bath together … beside in a private onsen/rotenburo. Like the names says, it is private. If it is in use there is a small sign at the door. If so, it is off limits for everyone else. Sometimes you find the term “family rotenburo”. I assume that this also stands for a big tub for the whole familiy.

A Yukata is the bath robe. Nothing more, nothing less. They provide them in hotels and you can wear them inside the hotel. In a hot spring resort you will see many Japanese that are walking around in the city wearing a yukata. I did it to in Shibu/Yudanaka in 2004 and Sounkyo in 2010. Very comfy. You also wear the yukata if you go to a shrine or temple festival or a firework, unless it is not that cheap blue and white version of the hotel. The yukata is a bath robe and also the informel version of the kimono.


Onsen as a holiday experience

For Japanese onsen is more than just taking a bath. They create a complete holiday weekend around it; Friday to Sunday just relaxing in a onsen. Japanese have on 10 free days in a year (or even less). Therefore a weekend in an onsen is worth a lot. This is also the reason why theses places are so crowded at the weekend.

There are also many stereotypes around the myth of onsen. Specially if you travel with your girlfriend *hint*hint* Traditional ryokans do not allow to share a room if you are not married. Sometimes these rules are also apply for “private rotenburo”. There you are allown but you are still naked and not married.

“Onsen during wintertime” was a priority on my list. This is one of the stereotypes. 2013 I realized this point. It was awesome. 17°F and I was sitting in the hot water of an rotenburo and enjoying the snow fall. I just skipped the sake because of bad experience in the past.


It doesn’t matter if you are looking for an onsen (温泉) or a sento (銭湯), you should look for the following character: 湯 and ゆ. Both are read “yu” are translated “water”. Those character you will find on the flags next to the entrance door. If you want to take a bath, look for those characters.

Entrance und changing places

I already mentioned that the bath is seperated by sex. Therefore you have seperated changing rooms and entrance doors. They are always marked very clear. In a hotel there are sometimes noren with different color: blue = men; red = women. Additionally thery are Kanji printed on the noren or a small sign next to the door: 男 = otoko, man; 女 = onna, woman. Smaller onsen may a central entrance, with the ticket counter, and split behind this first door.

There is one specialty that can lead to embarrassing situation: Onsen may change sides! There are two possibilities: They chance sides once a day or twice a day. Usually once during closing time at night and in the afternoon. So be careful. Don’t use automatically the same door in the evening that you used in the morning or the same door you used yesterday. Always check out the noren and the signs. In hotels you will be informed about it during your check-in.

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Onsen (温泉, 湯 or simply ゆ) is the embodiment of the japanese bathing culture. Translated it simply means “hot spring”. It is a term, for that many website are available that are much better than this one. But this blog about Japan is not complete without its own version …

Because of all these active vulcanos, Japan is covered with hot water springs. They are everywhere. My first contact with them was on my first trip in 2004 outside a city called Naruko. There was a spring in the middle of the forest. I burned my fingers. The water came out of the stone boiling. This area is called “cold hell”.

Also in 2004 I was in Yudanaka. A small town one hour outside of Nagano. I booked the Ryokan by accident as a compromise between Nagano and the mountain area. The place was more famous than I knew that time. Do you know the bathing monkeys? They live in Yudanaka. Right next to Yudanaka is a town called Shibu Onsen (I really need to scan the slides I took in 2004). This place has 9 “public onsen” and nice narrow streets and old houses.


Most people in Europe think about tiny bath houses in Tokyo and Kyoto when they hear the word Onsen. But these are called Sento (銭湯). For Japanese a onsen is a bath house with hot water from a natural hot spring. But I must admit, I still working on the details. If you are in Tokyo should visit Oedo Onsen. It is located in Odaiba an is really relaxing. But if I am correct, it is a Sento, but like I said, I don’t know for sure.

There onsen in the forest that are nothing more than an old hut without electricity. There are onsen that are a big spa and high entrance fees. (I prefer the first version). There are onsen that are barely more than a wooden tub. There are onsen with an outdoor pool for more than 500 people.

Many ryokan are advertising that they have an onsen. If so, you should reduce your expectations. In the most situations this onsen are nothing more than a big bath room for many people. But who cares. You were not in Japan, if you never went to an onsen. If there is a wooden tub made of cedar and the essential smell of the wet hot wood is filling the are, that moment is close to be a perfect moment.

Onsen are thermal hot springs that are said to have a healing effect. There are whole town built around a single hot spring that are living be tourism, mostly older people. But there are young Japanese too. There not theere for the medical effect but more for the relaxing effect of the onsen.

How do you recognize a real onsen?

(I) In a real onsen you will find an official paper of a water analysis. An minerals that are in the water, are listed. And yes, there is also acid sulfur. At all onsen you will recognize the smell of sulfur. Don’t stay to long in the water or you will smell the same. Just stay a few minutes and rinse off the water afterwards. This something you can spend the whole with.

(II) Japanese also have a method to check out the quailty of an onsen, specially in hotels: “Check where the water is going”. Every onsen has a permantent inflow of hot water. So there also water running over the edge of the tub. In Shibu Onsen this water is running down the floor, out to the street and down to the river. That is a good onsen. The less good onsen collect the water seperate from the water in the showers. It is not for sure but they may(!) recycle the water; heat it up and out it back into the tub. Japanese called this kind a Ryokan-Onsen. If you find this disgusting, think about that: What do you think hot tubs in the western world do?<

(III) If the water is crystal clear, get sceptical. Usually even the clearest hot spring have a color because of all the minerals. It shouldn’t look like tap water. There are also onsen with opaque, sometimes even look like mud.


pH-hautneutral ?
pH neutral?

No way! In fact, you don’t want to know the pH value. In 2013 I was in Kusatsu Onsen. This place is conneted to Bietigheim-Bissingen (tiny town in South Germany). A doctor form there was checking the medical effects of onsen. He also measured the pH value. Kusatsu has a 2,4. That is not that far away from battery acid. Nails made of plain steel dissolve completely within two weeks. The even have a factory at the end of the village where the collect the onsen water in neutralize it before releasing it into the river.

The very acid water is the reason why your skin is so smooth after bath. The dead dry skin is etched away. But don’t worry. The body can withstand acid very well.

more information at wikipedia: Onsen, Sento
more links: Oedo Onsen Homepage

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