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Trip to an Onsen - One of Life's Memorable Experiences

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I have lived in Japan for a total of about 5 years of my life, living in four different cities throughout Japan during that time. Now that I live back in my native country, I must say that one of the things I miss most about being in Japan are my trips to onsen, or natural Japanese hot springs. Visiting a Japanese onsen can be one life’s more memorable experiences.

Like many non-Japanese people, when I think of the term hot spring, I imagine a rocky landscape pocketed with natural pools of steamy, mineral-rich water. Often, the image of a spa with natural mud baths also comes to mind. This is really nothing like the experience of a Japanese onsen, however.

Japanese onsen are typically accessed as part of an entire resort experience. Some are small, family-run affairs with only a few rooms, while others are large, modern hotels complete with restaurants and even a gift shop.

Upon check-in, you immediately change into your yukata, or traditional Japanese robe made of thin, loose-fitting material and held together at the front with a loose belt called an obi. From this moment forward, your consciousness begins to shift away from the business of daily life and you begin to fall under the charm of the onsen experience.

After getting dressed in your yukata, pay a visit to the mineral baths before dinner. The bathing areas for men and women are separated (in almost all cases). Upon entering your designated area, you leave your yukata in a basket and step into the main indoor bath area for a quick shower. Next, you will usually have the choice of an inside bath (notenburo) or outside bath (rotenburo). The serenity you can attain by sitting in a rotenburo in the middle of winter, gazing through a curtain of steam emanating from the hot mineral water at nature around you is quite amazing.

Usually, dinner consists of traditional foods. Sometimes onsen food is served privately in your room, while at other times you enjoy it in the hotel restaurant. Either way, you are encouraged to wear your yukata anywhere inside the hotel, thereby preserving that other-worldly frame of mind.

After dinner, I advise going for one more dip in the baths. Then, it may be off to get a foot massage or just quiet time with family, friends, or a good book. Once it is time for bed, you will likely be out like a light. The warm mineral water does something to you that is hard to explain, but it puts many visitors into a completely relaxed state for hours after a soak. No wonder millions of Japanese businesspeople, families, and other groups visit Japanese onsen every year.

To appreciate the full onsen experience, plan to stay at least one night - two or more if you can. I guarantee that by the time you take your second or third soak, you will be hooked.
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