Hot springs beckon US service members
Editor’s Note: Although originally published more than 10 years ago, this story and the list of onsens, or hot springs, that accompany this article was updated Dec. 18, 2012. If you haven’t been to an onsen, we highly recommend that you give it a try. Very relaxing.
Nothing is more soothing than soaking your stress-laden body in a large, hot bath while focusing on serene natural surroundings or the starry heavens.
Hot spring resorts, or onsens, are a traditional outlet popular among Japanese of all ages.
They’re also becoming popular with U.S. service members stationed in the country. On Okinawa, Marine and Air Force installations offer monthly excursions to some of the island’s most popular onsens.
An estimated 130 million people visit Japan’s 2,500 onsen resorts each year, equivalent to the nation’s population.
“It is the ultimate way to relax,” said Sumito Goda, director of the Forum on Thermalism in Japan, a Tokyo-based thermal- medicine institute. Hot-spring water,
he said, accumulates underground for 300 to 400 years before it wells up from the ground.
“While underground, the water absorbs lots of minerals that our body needs,” he said. “That is why soaking in hot spring water is very therapeutic and good for the health, besides being relaxing.”
Japan’s archipelagos perch atop the world’s premier volcanic region, making it rich in hot springs. Hot springs are also popular in Iceland, Germany, Italy and France.
In the United States, hot springs can be found in high-temperature geothermal zones, such as California. Hot-spring or mineral-water resorts are also in Nevada, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
On Okinawa, five onsens are official natural hot springs. Local governments of each prefecture issue licenses to onsens with spring water hotter than 77 degrees Fahrenheit, which contain minerals considered therapeutic.
“Believe the healing power of the hot springs,” Goda said. “Set a time aside for your health and visit an onsen. You will be surprised to see the process, how your body restores a healthy rhythm.
“More often,” he said, “it is more effective than relying on medication.”
Onsen bathing benefits vary, depending on water temperature, chemical content and the natural surroundings. The law requires that each onsen post chemical and temperature information.
Some Japanese contend onsen bathing can rejuvenate skin, relieve muscle pain and heal burns, cuts and other skin troubles, such as atopic dermatitis. It’s also said to alleviate chronic digestive disorders.
Who doesn’t benefit from hot springs? People with fevers, malignant cancers, heart disease or severe anemia. Women in the early and late stages of pregnancy also should avoid onsens.
People with tattoos are restricted. The Japanese culture disdains tattoos, traditionally a sign of the criminal underclass. Some onsens do allow tattoos, but they are rare.
Bathhouses not meeting these requirements are called sento, or public bathhouses, to distinguish them from onsens. Unlike onsens, they usually are in accessible, urban areas.
JA Aroma Bath House in Ginowan near the Okinawa Convention Center is one of Okinawa’s licensed onsens.
“Most of our customers are regulars, and they spend at least two hours, some of them for half a day,” said Satoshi Tonaki, a JA Aroma Bath House employee.
Camp Courtney car saleswoman Natalie Cutugno, 25, who lives in Kitanakagusuku, is a frequent bathhouse patron.
“It’s extremely relaxing,” she said. “And I firmly believe it’s good for my health — it cleanses my skin and reduces my stress level.”
She tries to visit the bathhouse at least once a month.
“I started going about two years ago,” she said. “I went with a friend, who showed me the ropes, and now, I’m the guide for my friends. I took my mother when
she came over for a visit, and she just loved it.”
Cutugno said each visit lasts about four hours.
“There’s so many wonderful things to do,” she said. “One of my favorite rooms is the sea-salt scrub room. It’s a hot, steamy room where there’s a salt lick in the middle of the room, and what you do is pick up some salt and rub it all over yourself, then rinse with some very icy cold water.
“When you’re finished, your skin is silky smooth.” The visits also take a bite out of stress, Cutugno said.
“Whenever I start getting really irritable, my boyfriend will tell me it’s time for the bathhouse,” she said. “It does wonders for my disposition.”
Of all the pools available on Okinawa, Cutugno’s favorite is under a saltwater waterfall.
“I sit under it, and the water gently massages my back and neck, and all my troubles seem to disappear,” she said.
Ryujin no Yu, Senaga Island
This onsen is part of Ryukyu Onsen Senaga-jima Hotel, which was newly opened Saturday (December 22.)
Directions: Take Highway 58 south from Kadena Air Base’s Gate 1. After passing U.S. Army Naha military port, stay on the highway, instead of turning to the right to go to Naha Airport.
Proceed with the highway (Highway 331.) Japan Self-Defense forces bases are on your right. Turn to the right at the Senaga Intersection to get on the causeway, or mid-sea road, that connects the main island and Senaga island. Continue to drive the road, until it takes you to the hotel, which is located about half way around the tiny island.
Hours: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Admission: 1,300 yen (about $16) for adult, 700 yen (about $9) for children under 12 years old.
On weekends and Japanese holidays, admission for adults is 1,500 yen (about $19)