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Japanese Culture
Onsen
Onsen (温泉, onsen) - A Japanese hot spring. A volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered along its length and breadth. Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism.

Onsen come in many types and shapes including outdoor (露天風呂or野天風呂, rotenburo or notenburo) and indoor baths. Baths may be either public run by a municipality or private (内湯, uchiyu) often run as part of a hotel, traditional inn (旅館, ryokan) or Bed and Breakfast (民宿, minshuku?).

Onsen are a central feature of Japanese tourism often found out in the countryside, and are a major tourist attraction drawing Japanese couples, families or company groups who want to get away from the hectic life of the city to relax. Japanese often talk of the virtues of "naked communion" (裸の付き合い, hadaka no tsukiai) for breaking down barriers and getting to know people in the relaxed homey atmosphere of an onsen inn.

Japanese TV often features programs where the hosts visit a local onsen, interview the (female) owner (女将さん, okami-san), and try out some of the local delicacies.

The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨ or the Chinese character 湯 (meaning hot water). Sometimes the simpler hiragana character ゆ is used, to be understandable to younger children.

Traditionally, onsen were located outdoors, although a large number of inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Onsen by definition use naturally hot water from geothermally-heated springs. Onsen should be differentiated from sentō, indoor public bath houses in the city where the baths are filled with heated tap water. Major onsen resort hotels often feature a wide variety of themed spa baths and artificial waterfalls in the bathing area (打たせ湯, utaseyu).

Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content. A particular onsen may feature several different baths, each with water with a different mineral composition. The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, marble or granite, while indoor tubs may be made with tile, acrylic or stainless steel.

Many bathers come for only an hour or so to soak in the waters. Food also plays an important part in the attraction of a particular inn. While other services like massages may be offered, the main reason most people visit the onsen is to enjoy the baths.

Traditionally, men and women bathed together at the onsen, as they did at the sentō, but single-sex bathing has steadily become the established custom since the opening of Japan to the West during the Meiji period. Mixed-sex bathing persists at some onsen in the rural areas of Japan, which usually also provide the option of separate "women-only" baths or different hours for the two sexes, although young children of either sex may be seen in both the men's and the women's baths.

People often travel to onsen with work colleagues, as the relaxed and open atmosphere helps to break down some of the hierarchical stiffness inherent in Japanese work life. However, most visitors to onsen are not work groups but friends, couples and families.

Information source: “Onsen.” wikipedia.org. Article date: 4 Feb. 2008. Retrieved: Wikipedia. 4 Feb. 2008 <Onsen>.
 

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