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Onsen and Sento: A Closer Look Into Japan’s Bathing Culture

Onsen and Sento: A Closer Look Into Japan’s Bathing Culture

Japan is a volcanically active country and that has given rise to natural hot springs known as onsen. The country is 75% mountainous, many of those volcanic in nature. As a result, Japan boasts more than 3,000 hot springs. These hot springs are concentrated in the volcanic regions of Kyūshū,Chūbu, Tōhoku and Hokkaidō . There are also some hot springs that come from radioactive elements underground. Many Onsens have outdoor bath called 露天風呂 rotenburo allowing bathers to relish the view of the natural landscape. To be able to qualify as a legitimate onsen, the water must contain 19 different minerals and include certain levels of hydrogen ion, fluorine ion, and sulfur as specified by the Onsen Law enacted by the Japanese government in 1948.

(Photo Credit:

Whats the Difference Between Onsen and Sento?


Some onsen hot springs can be enjoyed through the ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn. This is the best place to experience an onsen while appreciating many elements of Japanese culture. They often feature Japanese-style wooden architecture and zen gardens that embody the Japanese principle of Wabi Sabi. Inns give guests a yukata (a thin summer kimono) and they can sleep in traditional Japanese-style rooms furnished with futon on tatami mats.

A sentō is a simple public bath that serves to fulfill the daily need for hygiene. It literally translates to “coin” (a sen is a discontinued coin worth 1/100¥) and “hot water”. Nowadays, entrance to an average sentō in Tokyo costs ¥450. When entering a sentō, guests will be greeted by the manager and they would need to pay an entrance fee. They will then be given a locker key with a chain so that it can be worn on the wrist or ankle. The guests will then proceed to a changing room depending on their gender where they will store their clothes and other personal belongings. They are expected to go into the bathing area naked bringing only a small wash towel and bathing toiletries. It is a must to shower first while sitting on a stool before going into the pool of hot water. Children of both genders usually bathe in the women’s section with their mothers or other female relatives.

Sento (Tokyo Sento Association)

The onsen and sento are enjoyed by the Japanese people not only for cleansing the body but also the spirit. It is likewise a place where people can gather socially and communicate openly.


What are the Benefits of Hot Springs and Public Baths?

Onsens are hot and mineral rich baths that occur naturally. The water must be at least 25 degrees Celsius at the source and as mentioned earlier, it must contain certain mineral content. An example would be requirements such as a metabolic acid (HBO2) level greater than 5mg/kg, or a hydrogen ion concentration greater than 1mg/kg, and so on. These requirements are to ensure that the onsen can deliver the level of warmth and nutrients that they are most noted for.

Onsens can bring about various effects which people have called Toji (hot spring healing or balneotherapy) based on what they feel from bathing in the water. There are three different types of “rests” that you can get from an onsen. They can either be rest for recreation, which helps with recovery from fatigue, rest for heath which is for keeping healthy and preventing ailments, and rest for medical treatment when you need to recover from an illness.

Other benefits from an onsen include the physical effect of warmth which invigorates your cardiopulmonary functions, the chemical effects of the minerals that the body absorbs, and finally the psychological effects of a serene and relaxing setting which refreshes the spirit.

What are Rules and Etiquette that Must be Observed?

Onsen Etiquette (Photo Credit:

Bathing in a public bath in Japan requires strict adherence to certain protocols. A bather must first bathe or take a shower to remove any dirt or sweat before entering bath tub. It is also recommended that bathers be completely nude before entering the water. If you decide to bring a small towel it is not allowed to be brought into the bath unless you remove it first because it is considered unclean. You can either fold it and put it aside or, as most Japanese do, simply put it in top of your head. Never swim or soak your hair in the bath tub.

Many sentō and Onsen prohibit entering people with tattoos as Japanese tend to associate tattoo with Yakuza, the Japanese mafia and the tattoos may scare other people. So inquiring with your local onsen or sentō before proceeding is recommended. Since the public baths are places for quiet relaxation and socialization, the use of devices that play loud music is not allowed.

Once done soaking, one must wipe their entire body with a towel before re-entering the changing area. If you are bathing in hot spring water, don’t rinse your body with tap water because this will lessen beneficial effects of the minerals on your body.

When in Doubt, just try to observe and imitate what others are doing. The Japanese bathing tradition is a truly unique experience and a great way to be intimate with the Japanese people and understand the culture.

Top Onsen Places

1. Kawaguchiko Onsen located at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Visitors can marvel at the iconic Mt. Fuji all while bathing in the calm and relaxing onsen.
2. Yufuin Onsen located at the foot of Mt. Yufu in Oita, is a popular hot spring resort for Japanese and tourists alike.
3. Hida-Takayama Onsen is located in the famous Hida Takayama area renowned for its historic old-world charm.
4. Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture. Its springs minerals includes sulfide and aluminum.

Top Sento Places

1. Daikokuyu is known as the King of Sent. The sentō is found in a Miyazukuri house which was built around 85 years ago.
2. Taishoyu is located in Hokkaido and is a modern, western-style sentō established around 90 years ago.
3. Ebisuyu is found in Ishikawa Prefecture. It is a traditional Miyazukuri style building from the 1950s and has the luxurious tile art of Ebisu-sama, the god of wealth.

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The Art of Ikebana: Origins and Styles

The Art of Ikebana: Origins and Styles

The Japanese are well known for their appreciation and reverence of the beauty of nature which is greatly influenced by Shinto, Japan’s prehistoric native religion. They have sought to capture nature’s beauty into artistic representations incorporated into everyday life. Ikebana is one Japanese artistic expression that has become known all over the world. It appeals greatly to the Japanese psyche because trees, plants and flowers are symbolic of the cycle of age, decay and rebirth giving it a deeper spiritual meaning. We can trace the beginnings of Ikebana around the 6th century when Buddhism reached Japan’s shores. It became part of the offerings (called kuge) to worship Buddha. For the next centuries, priests continued to make offerings but without any no set rules used to make the arrangements.

The Main Ikebana Schools That Developed Throughout History

Ikenobo School

This is the most ancient school of ikebana. It was created by a Buddhist priest in the Rokkakudo Temple founded by Prince Shotoku in Kyoto during the 15th century. The said priest who created these notable floral arrangements lived near a pond (Ike in Japanese) that had a small hut (called “Bo”) thus the name “Ikenobo” was born. In 1462 the name Senkei Ikenobo first appeared in historic records as “master of flower arranging.

Rokkakudo Temple – Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco (Photo Credit:
Ikenobo Style Flower Arrangement (Photo Credit:

This style was based on the Buddhist expression of beauty. It consists of seven branches representing hills, waterfalls, valleys, etc. arranged in a formal manner. The style became more and more complicated until the 17th century, when an expanding merchant class developed a simpler style, called Seika or Shoka. This style is made up of only three main branches, the tallest stem represents heaven, the middle stem represents man and the shortest stem represents the earth. This emphasized the individual beauty of the plants and flowers.

Ohara School

By the late 19th century, an avid Ikebana professor Unshin Ohara (1861-1916) from Matsue City, Shimane Prefecture, separated from the Ikenobo school and created the Ohara school. He explored the fields and mountains and tried to develop a style of ikebana to express the beauty of natural scenery. He created a new style called Moribana (piled-up flowers) placed in a shallow container. It is in contrast to the upright style of flower arrangement of the previous generations. During this time, Western influence was taking hold of the country and many arrangements began to feature Western flora. He searched for ways to incorporate brightly colorful Western flowers into his creations. Although by this time Ikebana has become a popular hobby, it was still mainly practiced by the upper-class members of society.

Unshin Ohara and his Moribana Creation (Photo Credit:

Example of Moribana from the Ohara School (Photo Credit:

Sogetsu School

The 1930s postwar period heightened interest in Ikebana and it began to spread to other social classes. During the US occupation of Japan, a number of US servicemen wives took Ikebana as a hobby. When they went back to their country, the spread of this artform became even more robust. In 1927, Teshigahara Sofu founded the Sogetsu school. This advocated the zen-eibana or avant-garde style making use of different kinds of creative materials such as plastic, plaster and steel.

Sofu Teshigahara (center) was born in Sakai, Osaka as the first son to an Ikebana Artist Hisaji Teshigahara (left) (Photo Credit:
Victorian Branch of the Sogetsu School (Photo Credit:

These schools are the dominant schools popular today. The Ikenobo school has some 60,000 teachers around the world and is practiced by about 15 million people in Japan. At present, more than two thousand different schools of Ikebana are registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education.

Choosing Your Materials

Ikebana makes use of various materials such as flowers. leaves, branches, vines and even fruits to make exquisite creations. Choose flowers and stems that keep their longevity even after they are arranged. Their mizuage or how they efficiently take in water will also influence how long they stay fresh. There are several techniques to encourage mizuage depending on the plant. Some must be cut underwater so as not to expose the stem to the air, some pounded with a hammer to improve its ability to draw water. Flowers such as orchids that are prone to bacteria can be seared with an open flame to sterilize them.

Here are common plants and flowers commonly seen in Japanese flower arrangements:

(Photo Credit:

Main Ikebana Types


Rikka developed during the Azuchi-Momoyama Era that is characterized by the building of grand and luxurious castles. Rikka is a three-dimensional arrangement composed of seven or nine plants. Elements are chosen to give a sense of the changing seasons.

Rikka Style, Ikenobo School (Photo Credit:


Shoka is a simplified form and emphasizes 3 lines so usually only 3 types of plants are used. Balance is observed and takes into account where the sunlight is represented in the arrangement. It is usually placed in the alcove where the Japanese entertain guests.

This is a free-style form that is not bound by traditions or formalities and depends on the creativity of the individual.


This style of Ikebana utilizes bottle-shaped vases. It got its name because the flowers and branches are “tossed” into the vase and the form created is left as is without modifications.


Moribana evolved as a style in order to incorporate flowers of foreign origin. During the Meiji restoration when Japan opened its doors to the west, many types of plants and flowers were imported into Japan and began to find their way into Japanese homes.

Basic Ikebana Form

One will notice that most Ikebana schools employ a similar arrangement form. They all subscribe to the style of “sansai” (the three basic elements of the universe), which was established in the Edo Era. With this style, the longest stem represents heaven, the shortest represents the earth, and the stem of mid-length represents man. The names of these elements may change depending on the school’s philosophy and how they view nature.

The form is influenced by Buddhism. The doctrine of Buddhist Mandela states that the universe is expressed between two basic elements and the sum of things that arises in between. Thus, between heaven and earth arises man and he only exists because of the harmony between the two main elements.

To create an aesthetically pleasing arrangement, you must first understand the proper ratios of the length and volume as well as the angle and distance of each stem from one another. The texture, color and shape of the container is also taken into consideration. The objective is to achieve balance.

The branches and flowers are made up of the shin, soe, and tai. They are all measured measured in relation to the utsuwa or pottery/vase. To identify the correct lengths of these elements, measure the height and width of your container and add them together. The Shin should be no more than three times this sum. Soe is two-thirds of shin, and tai is two-thirds of soe. Don’t forget to take into account the depth of the vase and make sure that you angle your stem in line with it. Also take note of the mizugiwa or water’s edge. It is where the flowers and the base merge giving the flowers new life.

You must take advantage of the 3D space and look at your creation from all directions. You can create the most basic style by putting shin at the center towards the back, 10 degrees to the left and 10 degrees forward. Place the soe 40 degrees to the left and 40 degrees forward. Place tai 70 degrees to the right and 70 degrees to the front. Figuring out the angles may be difficult in the beginning but with practice you will get a better feel of the right balance and harmony of all the elements.

(Photo Credit:

Ikebana is often placed in the Tokonoma or alcove. It is a Japanese style guest reception room where items for artistic appreciation are displayed. It is a place for contemplation and appreciation of beauty where an aesthetically pleasing arrangement greets guests when they arrive.

Tokonoma (Photo Credit:


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Japanese B-grade gourmet v.s. High end food

Japanese B-grade gourmet v.s. High end food

Japanese cuisine (和食, washoku) has a wealth of gastronomical delights. It has an endless variety of regional and seasonal dishes suited for either the budget traveler or the big-spender. If you are a first-time traveler, be prepared to be overwhelmed by the abundance of food options to explore. Their unique blend of flavors is an experience you will treasure and remember fondly for the rest of your life.

Affordable Meals, so called B級グルメ(bee-kyuu gurume, B-grade gourmet)


Made with chopped cabbage, okonomiyaki flour and eggs mixed with your favorite ingredients like sliced pork, seafood, rice cake or cheese topped with Okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, dried bonitos or green laver as you like. This is why we call this Japanese cabbage based pancake as Okonomi-yaki (your favorite grill).

There are two different takes on this dish: the Osaka version whose mix is scrambled together, and the Hiroshima version is prepared by layering ingredients together with noodles (yaki-soba).

Osaka-Style Okonomiyaki (Photo credit:
Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki (Photo credit:


Takoyaki is octopus that has been cut up and cooked in a takoyaki flour with egg and is shaped like a ball. These are then topped with mayonnaise, green laver (aonori), and dried bonitos as you like. A crisp exterior surrounding with savory takoyaki sauce, they’re a favorite at festivals and as a late-afternoon snack.

Takoyaki (Photo Credit:


This is a Japanese type of skewered chicken on a bamboo stick and grilled over burning charcoal. Typically, it is made with chicken thighs and wings but can also include chicken liver, skin, small intestine, or cartilage. The chicken is usually seasoned with a thick, sweet soy sauce called tare or shio (salt). Yakitori is commonly eaten in the evening with cold beer or whisky soda called highball.

Yakitori (Photo Credit:


Karee pan is a mildly sweet dough that is breaded then deep fried and at the center is Japanese curry which is milder than some Asian variants. Japanese curry diverged from its roots in India long ago and has evolved into an iconic dish in its own right. Beloved by schoolchildren and salarymen alike, it is known for its particular blend of sweetness, gentle spices and soothing mouth-feel that has made karee pan a popular snack.

Kare Pan (Photo Credit:


Although it originated in China where it is known as jiaozi, these affordable delicacies are very popular in Japan. These are dumplings made with ground pork, green onion, nira chives, cabbage, garlic ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil. They are then deep-fried and are enjoyed with a dip made from a mixture of soy sauce and vinegar.

Gyōza (Photo Credit:


The Japanese version of Chinese chow mein. Yakisoba is made from ramen which is stir-fried with pieces of pork and combined with cabbage, carrots and sprouts. Yakisoba is typically flavored similar to oyster sauce, but slightly different. It’s a special fragrant Yakisoba sauce that arouse your appetite.

Yakisoba (Photo Credit:


High End Dishes for the Discerning Traveler

Ootoro Tuna

ōtoro is the fattiest part of the Bluefin tuna found in the very underside of the fish. This cut is so fatty to the point of coming apart. It literally melts in your mouth and is oozing with Umami . This pink cut of tuna is speckled with snowy white bits of fat that is highly prized and sought after. ōtoro tuna is graded according to four categories #1 (highest), #2+, #2, and #3 that is based on five indicators: initial appearance, size and shape, color, texture and fat content. The best season for this kind of tuna is around December to February, when the tuna consumes large amounts of fatty fish.

ōtoro Tuna (Photo Credit:


Considered as one of the most expensive beef in the world, Wagyu beef is Japan’s most sought after meats. Wagyū is raised only from specific regions and from specific breeds that come from a direct, traceable and pure bloodline. What’s so special about this beef is the superb and pervasive marbling. Developing this fat dense meat is achieved by breeding the cows for more than 30 months. The Japan Meat Grading Association evaluates the beef based on a score of its yield (A-C) and level of marbling, firmness, color and overall quality (1-5), with A5 being the highest possible mark. Visitors to Japan should expect to pay anywhere from ¥5,000 ($46) to upward of ¥15,000 ($138) per person.

Wagyu (Photo Credit:

Matsutake Mushrooms

This popular ingredient is very pricey due to its rarity.  Matsutake mushrooms collected from the bottom of red pines in the Tamba region outside of Kyoto are said to be the best and the most expensive. Top quality matsutake retail for a respectable $1,000 per pound. Japanese chefs treasure this delicacy and use their expertise to prepare dishes that bring out its strong fragrance and unique flavor. Annual yields of this mushroom are now less than a ton for an entire season. To this day they’re still given as important gifts, meant to symbolize fertility and happiness.



Fugu or puffer fish has a powerful poison that can be fatal so its preparation is tightly restricted by law in Japan and several other countries. Only qualified chefs who have undergone three or more years of rigorous training are allowed to prepare it. It is often served as sashimi and chirinabe. Most people say that the liver is the tastiest part, but it is also the most dangerous. A full course fugu meal can cost ¥10.000-20.000 (US$100-200).

Fugu or Puffer Fish (Photo Credit:


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