Healing Heat: Are Traditional Wellness Treatments Such As Onsens and Hammams Still Popular Today?
It’s -4°C in Niseko, powdery snow is blowing almost sideways and I’m about to step outside—totally naked. I’m at one of the hundreds of outdoor onsens that dot Japan, where locals and tourists alike slip into pools of hot, cloudy water that’s naturally heated by volcanic rocks deep underground. Tales of the miraculous powers of these baths have been told for centuries. More than 3,000 years ago, people in Matsuyama are said to have seen an injured heron return day after day to bathe in a hot spring until it was healed, and Japanese legends claim brave samurais recovered from their battle wounds after a long soak.
They may sound apocryphal, but it’s likely these stories contain a grain of truth. Scientific studies suggest onsens improve circulation and sleep, lower blood pressure, ease pain and generally boost human health. During last year’s Rugby World Cup, teams from around the world took to onsens after their matches, hoping the water would heal their battered and bruised bodies. Then there are the benefits to mental health—bathing in hot water is said to relieve anxiety and reduce stress.
But to experience this for myself, I have to brave the cold. Outside, three large baths of differing temperatures line a trail of wet stepping stones. I crack open the creaky door and make a dash for it, hopping stone to stone, slushy snow biting at my feet until—just seconds later, though it feels infinitely longer—I step, relieved, into the first pool.
It’s hot. Not get-me-out-this-second scalding, but still a shock to the system. I lie back, trying to relax. Ten minutes pass. Fifteen. Steam billows into the air. The snow slows and the towering, wooded mountain across the valley comes into view. There’s no sound apart from the trickle of the water bubbling into the pool and rustle of the wind through the trees. The heat is calming, the scenery pretty, but I fail to achieve the enviable zen of the monkish man floating a few metres away, his eyes closed in quiet contentment.
The second bath calls. It’s even hotter but, for reasons I don’t understand, this one feels better. Snowflakes coat my hair while, beneath the surface, my tense muscles melt as they would on a massage table. Stress floats away. My mind clears. Sitting there, warmth seeping into my bones, it suddenly all makes sense—this is why the Ottomans built marble-clad hammams, why Scandinavians flock to steamy saunas, why Russians bake in banyas and why countless other civilisations have turned to heat for healing for millennia.
There’s only one pool left, just a few steps away. I slide in—and feel instant regret. It’s far too hot. So, with no embarrassment, I get out. Maybe this, too, is why onsens, hammams and other heat emporia are so popular—you’re in control.
In an era when health and wellness treatments often involve a taskmaster trainer, teacher or guru—and regularly whole classes of other people—the lack of rules is freeing. If it’s too hot, you can leave. If it’s too cold, you can hop into a warmer bath. You can stay 10 minutes, half an hour or a whole day. There is no awkward conversation with a masseuse about pressing too hard, no disappointment as a class ends just as you hit your stride and no time wasted as you lie bored through a droning mantra meditation. In an onsen, it’s just you, a stretch of quiet, uninterrupted alone time, and a pool of warm water. Sometimes, that’s the most healing thing of all.
There are more than 30,000 naturally occurring hot springs around Japan. Many of them claim to have specific health benefits—iron-rich springs are said to soothe joints and bones, sulphurous onsens claim to help lower blood pressure, and pools dense with hydrogen carbonate are favourites of beauty buffs, due to their supposed skin-softening qualities. Others claim to be a catch-all cure. The Shima Onsen in the mountains of Gunma prefecture is known as the “40,000 hot spring” for the number of ailments it’s reported to heal.
You can find an onsen in almost every Japanese town, often with both indoor and outdoor pools. One of the most spectacular onsen resorts is Hakone, which is only an hour by train from Tokyo and sits at the base of Mount Fuji. Another is Ginzan Onsen, a group of picturesque traditional wooden buildings in the mountains of Yamagata that could have come straight out of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. Ginzan Onsen is particularly popular in winter, when more than two metres of snowfall can blanket the town.
Banyas can be found everywhere from five-star hotels to rough-and-ready hostels, private homes to trendy offices, city centres to isolated log cabins isolated in wild Siberian pine forests. But few are as famous as the Sanduný Bath House in central Moscow, just a short walk from the Bolshoi Theatre.
First opened in 1808 by actor and businessman Sila Nikolaevich Sandunov and his wife Elizabeth Uranova, both friends of Catherine the Great, Sanduný is the oldest stone bathhouse in Moscow. Over the centuries, everyone from Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov to John Travolta and Naomi Campbell have soaked in its steam rooms and bathed in its cool, marble-clad pools. Opera singer Feodor Chaliapin—who used to visit on days when Sanduný was closed to the public and sing in the showers—nicknamed it the “Tsar banya” for its opulent, museum-like interiors.
Banyas are often a more extreme experience than onsens, hammams or saunas. You can book a massage at most banyas, many of which involve being whipped with bunches of dried sticks from a birch, oak or eucalyptus tree. The temperature is also often fiery. While the mercury in a typical steam room tends to hover around 50°C, banyas normally reach at least 90°C. To stop people overheating, many offer visitors a pointed felt hat—not unlike those worn by elves in cartoons—that keeps your head at a comfortable temperature.
Historically, hammams were often found within a stone’s throw of a mosque, so worshippers could wash their hands, feet and face before prayers. But over the centuries, these baths have taken on lives of their own, becoming spaces for socialising, relaxing and, often, healing.
Hammams can be found throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the most spectacular are found in Istanbul, including the spectacular Çemberlitas Hamam, which was built in 1584 by the acclaimed architect Mimar Sinan, who also designed the city’s famous Süleymaniye Mosque.
Unlike saunas and banyas, which often feature small, windowless rooms, most hammams take the form of a large, domed room with an enormous marble slab at their centre, where visitors can bask in the heat beneath beams of light streaming in from skylights.
Perhaps the most famous of all heat treatments, saunas have spread far from their Finnish roots and can now be found in almost every country in the world. Finns, however, still claim that saunas are best in their home country.
There are nearly two million saunas in Finland for a population of just over five million. Many families have one at home, which they will almost always say is their favourite. But the most impressive public sauna may well be Löyly, a futuristic “urban oasis” crafted from local pine that sits on Helsinki’s waterfront.
Löyly was designed by up-and-coming studio Avanto Architects, which was co-founded by Ville Hara and Anu Puustinen. “In the sauna, everybody is equal,” says Hara. “I personally visit a winter swimming club every week and there are people of all different backgrounds; professors and working-class men happily bathe together. It’s all about relaxing and enjoying the heat. You feel reborn after a sauna.”