Book Review | Onsen of Japan by Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh

After the flurry of Black Friday/shop small/Cyber Monday sales and turkey for practically every meal since Thursday (or is that just my family?), I think some R&R is in order. One of my favorite ways to unwind after a hectic day is in the solace of my bathtub.

If you were to ask someone which they prefer, a bath or a shower, the typical answer is almost always a “shower.”

Why? It’s quick, more water-efficient (unless you take 30 minute showers), and some people just don’t like sitting in a pool of “their own filth.” (Apparently that’s what some people call a “bath.”) Me, on the other hand, I would take a bath every day of the week if I had the time. I have enough bath bombs to last a lifetime (or at least until I restock for the holidays), but beyond that, I love to take baths because it’s a part of my day that’s phone and distraction-free.

I’ve yet to become one of those insta bloggers who posts a photo in the bath about how relaxing it is to dangle my phone, while naked, above a tub of water. I guess I neither have a desire to get electrocuted, nor violate a space that’s so relaxing with a device that’s the antithesis of zen. Anywhoo, I digress. This next review is about a type of bathing that’s done for both social and wellness purposes.

In their new book, “Onsen of Japan: Japan’s Best Hot Springs and Bathhouses,” Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh explore the world of Japanese bathhouses and the culture that surrounds these hidden gems.

While I haven’t been to any of these places described in this book (yet), I have visited Greek and Roman bathhouse ruins in Europe, and the architecture alone was quite impressive. I can’t imagine how cool it would have been to be able to experience the bathhouses first-hand…but with this book, you can! Onsen of Japan is a hands-on guide that walks you through what it’s like to experience one of these bathhouses, how to get there, what to do (and not do), and so much more!

This book is, without exaggeration, one of the most detailed, beautifully photographed guide books I’ve ever come across. Steve and Michelle have painstakingly taken the time to cover some of the most famous, as well as some of the lesser-known onsen across Japan. It’s chocked full of advice, from cultural faux-pas, to lesser known tips and tricks to getting reservations and access to some of the best onsen in the world.

Initially onsen were created out of necessity for pilgrims and samurai to have a place to stay and clean themselves along Japan’s Nakasendo route. The geothermal hot springs and volcanic land provided the perfect respite. These bath houses date as far back as 712 AD, which is when Dogo Onsen in the south of Japan was built. Today, they are used by locals and tourists alike.

While reading this book, I learned not all onsen are the same – some are more formal and require “bathtime reservations,” while others are more casual and are better suited as last-minute itinerary additions. The authors also do a great job of explaining social cues most Westerners may not be aware of, like how nudity is often preferred (or even required) and cellphones in certain areas are an absolute no-no.

The book is organized by region: about half of the 140 onsen covered in this book are from mid Japan (because of larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto), and the rest are from northern and south western Japan.

It’s fascinating to read about how the onsen differ, as etiquette and culture at one may be completely different from another. The book goes into a lot of detail about each location, including things like: what kind of baths are provided (e.g. indoor, outdoor, private, etc.), what kind of extras are available (e.g. towels, massage, food, sauna, etc.), as well as information like if you can stay overnight at the location and recommendations to see and do while you’re in the area.

While there is quite a variety of onsen to choose from in the book, one of my favorite is Hoshi Onsen Chojukan (p. 70), because it’s hidden inside Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Yes, you read that right: there is a bathhouse in the middle of a national park. What’s more unique about this onsen is its water – it bubbles up from gaps in the stones, and the “calcium, sodium phosphate and gypsum are said to help aid the healing of injuries, burns and gastrointestinal issues.” That description alone has me sold.

There are other onsen tucked away on mountain tops, alongside waterfalls, and even some in busy city centers. Some are easier to get to than others, but the book provides enough variety that, if getting a variety of onsen experiences is your desire, you will not be disappointed. Something I really like about this book is that it takes the guess work out of figuring out which onsen are worth visiting, and which may not (for example, if you’re a woman traveling solo, it’d be good to know which onsen are male-only). The book also includes things like the best ways to get to the onsen via public transportation.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book because it exposed me to something I knew very little about. It’s like a passport to Japan with 140 specific places to visit. Prior to reading Onsen of Japan, I had no idea how integral they are to Japanese culture, and to boot, that there are so many different kinds! I’d highly recommend this book if you’re looking to book a visit to Japan, and even if you aren’t, the photographs and onsen descriptions alone make it a great read (and a superb excuse to plan a trip in the future)!

I received this book complimentary on behalf of the publisher, but all thoughts and opinions in this post are my own. All photography featured in this post is my own unless noted otherwise; please seek permission before copying or reproducing the images.

Book Stats:  Onsen of Japan: Japan’s Best Hot Springs and Bathhouses by Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh


Page Count- 168

Binding- Softcover with color photography

Author: 2LWithIt

Spoonie Adventures in Books, Beauty, & Bullshit I'm a twenty-something year old recent law and business school grad living with a chronic health condition. Follow along on my shenanigans.

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