At the end of July, the muggy heat invades the streets in Okutama, a village located in the mountainous area west of Tokyo. The temperature is close to 33 degrees. To the songs of the first cicadas of summer, dozens of people, most of them wearing hiking boots, wait to bathe in an onsen, the public baths supplied by a hot spring.
27,000 onsen across the country
“I never go for a hike without going for a bath, the idea is to rest and wash myself before taking the return train”, says Hiroto Tanaka, a Tokyo hiker. Renowned for peaks exceeding 1,000 meters, Okutama, an hour and a half by train from downtown Tokyo, attracts many nature walkers. Like Hiroto Tanaka, many of them come to bask in this onsen, called Moegi No Yu (“the source of the young leaves of spring”, in Japanese).
Ancestral practice whose origin dates back at least to the 7th centurye century, bathing in hot springs, a typical culture of a country with 111 active volcanoes, remains very popular in all age groups. “Onsens are often located in remote mountainous places where there are beautiful landscapes. For the Japanese, this is therefore part of the journey. And as there are 27,000 across the country, we never get tired of it ”, explains the specialist Isamu Gunji, author of numerous books on the subject.
“Depending on the minerals contained in the water, its color changes, ranging from milky blue to black. In some places, you can bathe directly in the spring, in a completely wild place, it’s sublime ”, enthuses the expert.
These waters also offer therapeutic effects, exploited by the Japanese since time immemorial. Takeda Shingen, leader of a large samurai clan of the XVIe century, regularly sent its wounded soldiers to onsens to recover faster.
“The sodium, iron or sulfur contained in water improve blood circulation and the functioning of the immune system”, emphasizes Shinji Maeda, doctor and professor at the International University of Health and Welfare. They also act against rheumatism, back pain and osteoarthritis. The popularity of onsens is not about to wane, in an aging country where seniors over 65 represent 28% of the population.