Japan is burbling with hot springs. They are called onsen and from our vantage point one of the most unique elements of this place. Water, hot as you can handle, gushes up from the ground. And what else can you do but get in and take a bath? So folks here pipe this hot water around, cool it if need be, and gather it into pools. Some baths are outside and rustic. Others are indoors with amenities abounding. Whatever the setup, hot springs are enormously popular among the Japanese so we thought it best to join in. The past few days we have soaked up Japan, quite literally, by visiting several hot springs. From what we can surmise, taking a bath in Japan is not merely utilitarian, not simply to remove dirt from yourself, but rather a much deeper connection with the earth and a way of caring for your body as part of creation.

Now let's be clear, public bathing takes some getting used to. But after a few times at the onsen you realize that a) no one's looking and b) you'll never see these people again. Etiquette requires that you relax and avoid doing a cannonball into the hot tub. That's about it.

First we visited a tiny village in Kyusu called Kurokawa Onsen. There are more than 20 venues where you can take an onsen and they sell a 3 bath pass so you can spend the day experiencing the hot springs. Each hot spring here is connected to a guesthouse called a ryokan. For everyone's sake there are no pictures of actual onsen bathing!

Entrance to another onsen.

With my official bathing pass

Walk around the town

Though our travels have been limited, we agree

From Kurokawa we went on to Beppu, a seaside city with some of the highest concentration of hot springs in the world. We stayed in an older part of the city famous for onsen.

Steam rising up everywhere in Beppu

I felt like Batman in Gotham City

Steam bath for feet

Our favorite onsen in Beppu. The small gray huts are steam rooms (140 degrees!) where you lay on a pile of herbs and sweat.

So we spent a few days in hot water and that was a nice way to get a sense of this place we've been for almost three months. With all these hot springs around I gained a new awareness that this planet is a continuing creation. These hot springs feel in some sense primordial. Things are moving in Japan in ways I have not experienced before. Small earthquakes are a common occurrence; geothermal activity is in abundance.

Onsen are considered to be healing waters by the Japanese. My knee pain from two surgeries 10 years ago subsided a bit after sitting in these hot baths. And yet with all of this healing water coming up from the ground, Japan also knows the destructive power of water. The tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster of March 2011 remain forefront in the public consciousness. There is much grieving still about that destructive water.

And of course these things aren't far from home either. My hometown is still getting back on its feet after a flood. Farmers across the U.S. are recovering from severe drought.

But in the face of these things there are promises.

He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there he lets the hungry live, and they establish a town to live in; they sow fields, and plant vineyards, and get a fruitful yield. Psalm 107:35-37.


At any rate, this is what came to mind sitting in my birthday suit in a piping hot pool of water in the Japanese countryside. In this traveling project of reflecting on land and faith, we figured visiting some hot springs would be a way to kick back and rest our bones. In fact it was another chance to learn.


2 responses to “Onsen-sational!”

  1. Steffen says :

    Love it! Onsen is just perfect to relax and rethink the last couple days. *envy*

  2. DeNee hansen says :

    How lucky can you get? The adventures you two are exoeriencing will provide some kind of sermon fodder for years to come. We hope all continues to go well and you return to the US ready for the next part of the year awaiting you.

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