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A trip to an onsen is a quintessential part of a trip to Japan. The age-old ritual of soaking in a hot spring-fed bath quietly among others feels like an escape from the stresses of everyday life—something just about everyone needs right now.
While the pandemic has made travel to Japan off-limits for most tourists right now, it hasn’t put a damper on recreating the onsen experience at home, using tips from Colin Fukai. He serves as global marketing chief of Nishimuraya Honkan, a Japanese ryokan (or inn) with rooms that lead to a lush garden, sublime kaiseki meals made of ultra-fresh seafood and seasonal vegetables, and its own on-site onsen exclusively reserved for guests.
Nishimuraya Honkan makes the perfect home base for visitors to Kinosaki, a tiny spa town surrounded by mountains and sea just a short train ride from the cultural capital of Kyoto.
Legend has it that a hot spring shot up from the ground in Kinosaki some 1,300 years ago, after a Buddhist priest spent 1,000 days in prayer. Since then, the town has channeled its healing waters into seven distinctive bathhouses that bathrobe-clad travelers can explore in between strolls along Kinosaki’s charming streets. It’s a wellness travel experience like none other.
Once it’s safe to travel again, Kinosaki should be on the top of your bucket list if you’re interested in culture, wellness or sheer relaxation. In the meantime, here’s how to have your own Japanese onsen experience at home.
1. Cleanse your body.
Visiting a Japanese onsen is a communal experience. You’ll almost always enjoy the hot spring with others of the same gender. As such, there’s a huge emphasis on individual bathers to do their part to keep the shared waters pristine.
Start your at-home bathing ritual like you would a trip to the onsen, with a thorough shower. Consider getting a simple wooden bath stool, like those you’d find at the shower facilities at Kinosaki’s bathhouses, to sit on while you cleanse your body. You could also use a natural body scrub (like this one from Lush) to buff away dead cells and prep your skin to soak up all the mineral goodness of the bath.
2. Draw a hot bath.
Once you’ve rinsed off, fill up your tub with hot water—really hot water. The temperature of Kinosaki’s hot springs is high enough to hard-boil an egg (and vendors around the town cook them up as a novel snack for peckish tourists). Bathhouses in the village regulate the water to be about 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Crank up your water temperature slightly higher than you may be used to (although be careful not to burn yourself!) for a more authentic experience.
3. Dissolve onsen bath salts in the water.
Japanese onsen water has a high mineral content that offers beneficial properties for your skin and overall health. Your local tap water, on the other hand, probably won’t have the same effect on its own.
“Minerals are an essential part of onsen baths,” says Fukai. “Small packets of onsen salts can be purchased online, and used in each bath to simulate the water found in Japan’s natural onsens.”
You’ve got choices when it comes to onsen bath salts. This Yunohana Onsen Powder gets its natural minerals straight from the Japanese Alps, while this variety pack of Tabino Yado Hot Springs “Milky” Bath Salts contains four different types mineral mixes, each in their own foil packet. Essential oil enthusiasts will dig this Amayori Hinoki Onsen Salt Soak Set. Queen of Tidying Marie Kondo swears by pouring the salts over her head “for an electrifying boost” in the shower.
4. Light incense.
Visiting an onsen is a special experience. To recreate it at home, you’ll want to pay attention to the details of the atmosphere, and lighting an incense can set just the right mood, says Fukai. Skip the patchouli sticks from your local head shop in favor of more subtle (and far less smoky) incense from Japan. The country’s traditional incense sticks are crafted from specific wood that secretes a fragrant resin when lit.
Choose a scent that will allow you to completely let go. This KA-FUH Assortment Gift Set exudes “the scent of blossoms in the wind” and promises to conjure images of “the leaves of a cool forest after a rain shower.” Or, try this Zen Incense Bundle Assortment, which has three unique scents that are designed to be companions for meditation sessions.
You’ve infused the bath with minerals and created a tranquil atmosphere. There’s nothing left to do but slip into the tub and soak. Aim to spend about 15 or 20 minutes relaxing in the mineral water—enough to relax every muscle, but not so long that you feel super fatigued from the heat. Fukai suggests using a yuoke (traditional Japanese wooden bathing bucket) to pour onsen water over your head and shoulders. This bath bucket from Amayori releases the faint fragrance of cypress when wet.
6. Rinse and wrap your body.
Once finished with your bath, drain the water and rinse off. No need to use soap—you want to keep most of the minerals on your skin. At a Japanese onsen, you’d dry off with a traditional cotton hand towel called tenugui.
“While in a public onsen, the hand towel can be used for help with modesty, or for drying off in between baths. At home, it could be used to create a comfortable neck rest,” says Fukai.
Since you’re in the privacy of your own home, dry off with something more soothing, like a big, soft towel made of natural fibers. This set of waffle weave towels from the appropriately named brand Onsen or these crafted-in-Japan Imabari waffle towels from The Citizenry will do the trick.
Complete the experience by tossing on an authentic yukata (lightweight cotton kimono), like those worn around Kinosaki, and cozying up for the rest of the evening.