A to Wa of Japan: Week 38

It’s time for A to Wa of Japan again! Last week’s post was about things beginning with  や (ya) and we looked at yatai (屋台). This week we are looking at things beginning with ゆ (yu). A big thank you to those who joined in with suggestions this week:

Sequins and Cherry Blossom suggested (o)yu (お湯 / literally ‘hot water’, but also used as the symbol for onsen – hot spring baths); Japan Australia also suggested yu, as well as Yudanaka (湯田中 / an onsen village that is home to the famous snow monkeys), Yufuin (湯布院 / a hot spring town in Kyushu), and yukata (浴衣 / light cotton summer kimono); Zooming Japan suggested yuzu (ユズ / a citrus fruit), and yutanpo (湯たんぽ / a hot water bottle); and Paul suggested Yurakucho (有楽町 / area south of Tokyo station with lots of small restaurants and izakaya underneath the elevated railway lines), Yumoto Onsen (湯本温泉 / hot spring resort near Nikko), and yumi (弓 / bow used in Japanese archery).

There were some great suggestions this week, and a lot of them seemed to relate to one theme. So this week I have decided to write about…

Yu (湯 / ゆ)

‘Yu’ (湯) or ‘oyu’ (お湯) (to be polite), simply means ‘hot water’. However, this simple word has become the symbol for Japanese onsen (温泉), or hot spring baths.

Nasu Onsen Spa ©JNTO

Nasu Onsen Spa ©JNTO

Often this symbol is used on maps and signs to indicate an onsen:

But as well as this symbol, the kanji for ‘yu’:  and even the hiragana: are also used.

Onsen are such a massive part of Japanese culture, but it’s not until recently that I’ve really begun to appreciate them and understand their popularity. I never really gave onsen a chance whilst living in Japan, because I didn’t like the idea of getting naked in public (I know, I’m so British!), In my whole three years there I only ever tried a private public onsen once (and never a public public onsen!), and I didn’t really get it. I spent all this time getting clean, only to sit in the hot water for a few minutes and promptly get bored. I love baths at home, but they’re full of bubbles and I always take a book in – I just couldn’t think what to do without a book!

Onsen (hot spring bath)

Kashikiri onsen

But I’m told half of the enjoyment comes from soaking in the onsen with friends. I think it’s still going to be a long time before I’m up for that, but I’m not saying I won’t ever try it. Next, I’m keen to try staying in a hot spring town and having my own private rotenburo (露天風呂 / outdoor bath) attached to my room. Something like this maybe:

Gora Kadan

(Image source)

There are thousands of onsen towns in Japan. Some if them, such as Yudanaka (湯田中) in Nagano Prefecture, Yufuin (湯布院) in Kyushu, and Yumoto Onsen (湯本温泉) near Nikko, were mentioned in the suggestions this week. You’ll notice that all of these towns begin with ‘yu’ and the kanji 湯, showing how famous they are for their hot springs. Not all onsen towns have ‘yu’ in their names though. Some other famous onsen towns include Kinosaki (城崎) in Hyogo Prefecture, Gero (下呂) which is between Nagoya and Takayama, Kusatsu (草津) in Gunma Prefecture, Minakami (みなかみ or 水上) in Gunma Prefecture, Hakone (箱根) in Kanagawa prefecture, and Beppu (別府) in Oita Prefecture.

Yudanaka is perhaps one of the most famous hot spring towns, but it’s famous not just as a place for people to go and bathe in onsen… it’s famous for its monkeys!

Snow Monkeys, Jigokudani, Nagano, March 2011

Snow Monkeys, Jigokudani, Nagano, March 2011

As I’m sure many of you will know, Jigokudani Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑) in Nagano (near Yudanaka) is famous for the gorgeous ‘snow monkeys’ who live there and bathe in the onsen. These onsen are not for public use of course, as monkeys don’t know you have to wash before you get in! The monkeys seem to really love the hot water, and when I visited them they looked so chilled out and happy, like they didn’t have a care in the world.

For many foreign tourists in Japan, visiting an onsen is high on their list of things to do. Just make sure you follow the correct etiquette, clean yourself thoroughly before getting in the bath, and don’t put your towel in the water. Here’s some useful vocabulary if you’re thinking about giving onsen a go:

  • kashikiri onsen (貸切温泉) – private use onsen
  • roten-buro (露天風呂) – outdoor bath
  • noten-buro (野天風呂) – indoor bath
  • konyoku (混浴) – mixed bath
  • ofuro (お風呂) – bath
  • sento (銭湯) – public bath (with artificially heated water)

Also, the changing rooms will often be marked with the kanji for men (男) and women (女), so make sure you learn these and go in the right room!

So what do you think about onsen in Japan? Have you bathed in a public onsen? Would you? Which onsen town in Japan would you recommend?

Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma

Takaragawa Onsen, Gunma

(Image source)


Next week we’ll start with よ (yo), so please leave a comment below suggesting a topic for things beginning with よ. Topics can be anything, as long as they are connected to Japan – food, places, people, characters, whatever you want to hear about! Just remember that the words you suggest must be Japanese words.

I look forward to hearing your suggestions!  (*^_^)v

12 thoughts on “A to Wa of Japan: Week 38

  1. Onsen and show, what a beautiful scene in winter time!

    Suggestion with よ for next week
    Yokohama(横浜), Yokosuka(横須賀) , Yosano Akiko(与謝野晶子 / A Japanese author and poet in Meiji period), Yomiuri Giants(読売ジャイアンツ / one of famous professional baseball teams in Japan, which was own by Yomiuri Newspaper corporation)


  2. Oh, I love onsen! I always go when I’m in Japan (preferably with friends). It’s so relaxing and good for your skin. The best one I’ve ever been to is 玉の湯(Tama no yu) in Yufuin where you get your own little house in the woods and the cooking is out of this world.


  3. I went to an onsen for the first time this summer! And boy was I terrified lol. But it was fun. I just spoke to my friend the whole time, and random old ladies. I also went to a sento, and again random people were just coming up to me and having a general chit chat, as if we were all just sitting on a park bench or something lol. So I do recommend you do it!
    And for よ next week, how about Yokohama?


  4. I love onsen! ^^
    I’ve been to quite a few, but I found my favorite one on Sakurajima in Kagoshima Prefecture. Another one I really liked was in Shirahama (Wakayama Prefecture).
    As for “onsen resorts” or “onsen cities” or whatever, I like Kusatsu the best.
    Beppu, Yufuin etc. have been nice, but Kusatsu beats them all in my opinion.

    Yomiuri Shinbun

    I’d also like to suggest Yonaguni, but I really think only somebody who’s actually been there should write about this wonderful, but remote island that is actually closer to Taiwan than to the rest of Japan. Yet I wanted to mention it because I fell SO MUCH in love with Yonaguni when I visited last month! ^__^;;


    • Thanks for the onsen recommendations!

      And thanks for the ‘yo’ suggestions. I learnt about Yonaguni at work and it’s on my (very long) list of places to visit one day… I’ll write about it if I ever get there! 😉


  5. I always look for the symbol (ゆ) when travelling in Japan. I can highly recommend the onsen at Gero Onsen in Gifu. They also have a lot of ashiyu (足湯) or foor spa which are scattered around the town and are free to use. I have a blog post about the town here http://japantraveladvice.com/gero-onsen/

    Hida Takayama a little further north is also amazing, especially some of the traditional ryokan they have there up in the Japan Alps.

    A few suggestions for next week are:

    Yoro (a town in Gifu famous for its park and waterfall)
    Yonezawa (a city in Yamagata Prefecture famous for its beef)
    Yoshinoya (a chain of gyudon restaurants in Japan)


  6. Onsen are good for chatting to people as everyone is relaxed and not in a hurry (as well as wanting to practice their English), however I generally find the water is too hot and I end up bright red and dizzy!

    For よ can I suggest:

    Yokai (numerous and various supernatural monsters from folklore still heavily used in Manga/Anime/books/films)
    Yoyogi Koen (park near Harajuku; popular with locals and tourists especially on Sundays)
    Yojimbo (Kurosawa film starring Mifune Toshiro)
    Yokozuna (Grand Champion rank in Sumo)
    Yoshimoto Banana (popular novelist)


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