The moment I took off my shoes and clothes to enter the onsen in that Kanazawa ryokan I knew that something special was about to happen. Well, it was my first time in Japan, I was fascinated by one million things, but the soothing views and the calming, mysterious, almost sacred atmosphere immediately transported me to an ancient era devoted to beauty, self-care and wellbeing, in all their forms, as everyday essentials.
Immersed in the surrounding wilderness, the onsen experience was truly special, somehow transcendental. The stage, a typical example of traditional architecture—dark timber beans, shoji paper sliding doors, niwaki trees through the windows. The ritual, a succession of reinvigorating baths to cleanse and calm body, mind and spirit. Conscious of my own body, fully devoted to the healing power of nature, the ceremony was transformative.
There are around 30,000 hot springs dotted throughout the country, most of them of volcanic origin. To be deemed an ‘official’ onsen, the water needs to be at least 25º C and contain at least one of the 19 healing elements, such as antibacterial sulphur, skin-healing iron or lipid barrier-recovering calcium. The skin feels so soft, refreshed and uplifted immediately after coming out of the bath. Traditionally used as a purifying ceremony for mind and spirit in Shinto practices, onsens were later incorporated into Buddhist rites, then evolved to become a self-care and a social ritual.
Although today there are many private onsen, communal bathing has always been the rule in Japan. Being completely naked around naked strangers of all sizes and shapes could make you feel somehow uncomfortable. From a Western perspective, our body self-image is often built in comparison to others, thus affecting our self-esteem. At an onsen, nudity is neither celebrated nor shamed, simply accepted. Everybody shares its own imperfections and nobody cares. Then you realise that every scar, and every stretch mark tell the story of each one’s life. The onsen ritual has already made its magic. And it could last forever.