The Onsen & Contrast Showers

Typically in North America when getting to know a friend of the same sex you would say “Hey, let’s go for a coffee sometime.” In Japan I have found within the first week of meeting same-sex friends you end up more or less saying “Hey, let’s get naked and hang out in an onsen!”.

Japan sits on several unstable fault lines, while this makes the country susceptible to frequent earthquakes it brings one of the volcanic islands best amenities available – The Onsen. Onsen (温泉) is a Japanese term for hot spring. These hot pools of water have a few rules to them that the locals are accustomed to but to a foreigner it’s a learning process and extremely worthwhile.  You can find these onsens everywhere, from hotels or small hole in the wall family run onsens to beautiful spa-like buildings and many you can hike to that are natural pools.  Each paid hot spring is a different price averaging ¥500 (roughly $6.05). All you really need is a towel or an “onsen towel” which is as big as a hand towel and the only thing you are allowed to bring into an onsen. First thing you will learn is there are separate male and female hot springs in the same location, very few are co-ed.   The colour that represents males is black and female, red.  Once you enter the change room there is a wall of baskets to put your clothes in with a vanity mirror and hair dryers for when you are done.  There is no clothing or bathing suits allowed in the onsen, leave your undergarments and ego in the change room. 

A glass door separates you and the hot spring, when entering you get a whoosh of hot steamy air that immediately starts to raise your body temperature- a plesent thing when you are naked. Each onsen has it’s own earthy sulfur-like smell that you instinctually breath in deeply. There are usually showers located near or beside the pools, all open to each other and sit side by side. It is not custom to stand in these showers, in fact the shower heads are about chest high.  Each shower station is equipped with a small stool to sit on, a bucket to wash your face with and a removable shower head and a mirror in front of you.  You are allowed to bring a shower caddy in with you if soap is not provided. It is very important that you wash yourself thoroughly, as the hot springs are meant for soaking only, not cleaning. This showering time is great for a westerner to get used to the whole naked environment and ease into being comfortable hanging out buck naked with friends or family.  It makes for some interesting conversations but oddly connects you in an unsexual way to the people you share this experience with, almost like you are exposing yourself completely, have nowhere to hide your insecurities and allows you to be comfortable in your own skin. A powerful unspoken lesson of the onsen.

All of these onsens are completely different in design, some are concrete square pools, some have beautiful laid stone and the older ones are wooden – all of which are only knee deep.  If you were to sit on the bottom it comes up to your chin. Most of them have a spout where the water trickles in like a small waterfall which adds to the meditative ambiance.  Once you dip your fully naked body into the massive hot pool (they all range in temperature, but are usually very hot) you can’t help but make this sigh of total relaxation, feeling your muscles, aches and pains melt away. Known as healing water, every onsen has a different mineral content which is why they are seen for healing different ailments. Once in the onsen, the peaceful environment makes conversation slow and words are instinctually spoken softly. If you are lucky enough to find an outdoor pool this only adds to the serenity – especially in the winter if it is snowing.  There are monkeys from Japan called Japanese Macaque or The Snow Monkeys that live in several natural hot springs. These wise looking monkeys are a truly beautiful sight to be seen and have a pretty epic life.

My favourite onsens provide a cold pool to dip into, this sounds terrible after thinking of melting away in a hot spring but makes the whole experience adds the benefit of hot-cold therapy.  The benefits of cold thermogenesis include reducing inflammation, boosting fat loss and helps the body recover faster. This month instead of leaving you with a recipe I will give you the challenge of trying a contrast shower after your regular shower, let cold water fall over your collar bones and over your back and shoulders, then switching it back to hot and repeating one more time ending on the cold shower.  You may think I’m crazy giving you a challenge like this in the winter months but opposite to what you think, the cold water will actually activate your body’s thermostat stoking your metabolism leaving your body warm in the end!

After your onsen experience there are cold and hot teas available and some places cook hard boiled eggs in the hot spring which you enjoy in a lounge room where you sit on the floor. Slowly your friends trickle out of the change room in their own pace. Much like after a good massage, the onsen experience leaves you with a sleepy state of bliss, hitting the pillow and melting into a good night’s sleep.  I can’t bring an onsen to you, but I can simulate the same beneficial experience of the hot and cold therapy that they provide. Enjoy this simple and quick way to boost your health in the shower.                 

The Contrast Shower

  • 5 minutes “regular” hot shower followed by this contrast shower:
  • 10 second cold shower on the front (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 10 seconds cold shower on the back (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • 30 seconds hot shower (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 30 seconds hot shower (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • 10 second cold shower on the front (aimed at the collar bones)
  • 10 seconds cold shower on the back (aimed at the back of the shoulders)
  • Always end on cold!

Some of the benefits of contract showers include:

  • Improves circulation and improves recovery time from training.
  • Activates brown fat (good fat - generates heat and stokes your metabolism) that helps burn up white fat (“bad” fat - just plain old adipose tissue)
  • Brown fat is a heat-generating type of fat that burns energy instead of storing it, acting more like muscle than fat. Research has shown that brown fat can be activated to burn more fat by cooling your body.
  • Brown fat is mostly located on the upper back and neck, and on your chest above your clavicle. - Aim so the water hits those parts of your body
  • Improves immune system function, benefits testosterone, and more

For more information and research on the contract shower a great resource is Shawn Stevenson’s podcast The Model Health Show, featured as the #1 Health and the #1 Fitness & Nutrition podcast on iTunes.