Sendai is such an amazing city, and I have so many wonderful memories of it, that I sometimes forget that other people know little about it – they may even have never heard of it. Even though I knew a lot about Japan, before I went there I had only heard of Sendai in relation to the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. But within Japan it’s known for various historical and tourist spots, and one of these is the onsen (hot springs). People will travel quite far for a good onsen, and Sendai has two famous areas: Sakunami and Akiu.

Japan has thousands of onsen, and they have been used for hundreds of years. Japan’s location, which makes it more prone to earthquakes, is also the reason for these natural hot pools. Many people have already heard of them in one way or another - you might have seen a photo or video of macaques using them to keep warm in the winter. But it’s not just a winter pastime – you can enjoy it all year round.

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ID:	1166Japanese macaques warm up in an onsen
(By Yosemite - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59752)

I don’t even know why, but I had put off visiting the onsen for months. When I eventually went it was early summer. The trees were full and green, the sun was shining more often than not and the temperature was already quite high. It didn’t seem like a great time to be soaking in hot water, but I had a free day and I’d promised myself that I would go. I was living closer to the Sakunami onsen (and Akiu is hard to reach without a car), so that’s where I went. I’d never been to an outside one before, so I chose Ichinobo because it was said to have some beautiful ones.

My first trip to an “onsen” was in Hakone. It was an inside one, and I wasn’t even sure if it was a natural one – man-made ones do exist as well. But it had a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji, and I’ll never forget sitting in the onsen watching the sun rise over it through a gap in the window. It was also part of the hotel I was staying in, so I didn’t have to travel to get there. In Sakunami, I was visiting the onsen as a day trip, and that was an entirely different experience.

You may think that customers of the hotel would be prioritised, but as a day guest I felt very welcome. It was a prime example of great Japanese customer service and hospitality – there was a free shuttle bus to take everyone from the train station to the onsen and even free drinks and snacks to enjoy in-between soaks. Lounge chairs looked out onto the lush mountain foliage, and I couldn’t have felt more removed from my daily life, and my worries.

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ID:	1168The foliage in Sakunami
(By Kinori – own work, public domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3091013)

Along with the greenery and fresh air, there are no obvious clocks in the onsen. It's a world without time, where the only aim and only activity is to relax. In countries like UK and the US I feel like there's a lack of this kind of pastime. The closest I can think of is the cinema - an experience that sucks you in: escapism. You know it will come to an end eventually, but until then you can just be - not do, but be. Part of you can switch off, wander, think, but your worries cannot find you. You exist in the moment, rather like meditation. In the onsen you just sit in the water, with no distractions, no urban noise. There are other people around you, but your focus is on the sound of running water, on the sunlight across leaves, on your body coming alive in the heat. You immerse yourself in the water and in the moment. When you get out of the water your body can feel heavy, but you can also feel reborn.

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ID:	1167An outdoor onsen
(By Chris 73 - Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13985)

The relaxation is not the only perk of an onsen, either. Onsen water contains minerals that are good for the skin. For the best results, the water needs to be in direct contact, and nothing else is allowed into the pools – not even fabric. Before you enter the water you also need to wash (for which body wash and shampoo are provided), and it’s a very strange feeling, bathing in front of others. But once that was over, I didn’t feel particularly self-conscious. One reason was that I already knew what the custom was, and I went mentally prepared. Besides, everyone else is naked, too, and they don’t care, so why should I? No-one bat an eyelid at me when I was there. I actually saw someone wear a swimsuit into an onsen once, and they got stared at. Now that was embarrassing. Honestly, you would look more ridiculous and out of place if you wore one than if you didn’t.

More than anything, my onsen experience left me feeling liberated. I could let go of cultural norms and just enjoy the water free of worries and free of timekeeping – although I was glad that in most places nowadays men and women use separate onsen! This does mean that in Ichinobo, they rotate use of the onsen so everyone gets to access all of them in a day. Time your visit well, and you won’t even need to wait long! While they were cleaning it, I had a look around the gift shop, which sells some lovely items. They also sell grasshoppers, if you like trying new snack food!

My love of onsen is only dulled by two things: the cost and the convenience. You have to travel to get there, then pay to use it for the day, and it isn’t particularly cheap, although certain offers are available, such as mid-week discounts. The other thing is that, as a woman, I couldn’t always go. It’s like going swimming, except there’s no work-around. But if there’s one thing that going to onsen has taught me, it’s that trying new things can provide you with a new favourite hobby. And that even if your first time at trying something isn’t great, don’t give up. You might prefer it at a different location or with different people. And if after that the traditional onsen is not for you, there are some onsen around Japan where swimwear is the norm (and legally required for mixed onsen). There’s one in Hakone that’s like a water park, and includes gimmicks such as coffee- and sake-infused onsen!

If you can, please do take the opportunity to go. Onsen are wonderful places where you, too, can make some wonderful, relaxing memories. If you already have some, share them with me in a comment!