Hot possibility

Of all the activities available in Japan, visiting a Japanese hot spring (Onsen) is an incredibly popular option. It’s often high on the wishlist of things to do for holiday makers visiting the country but also an attractive choice for domestic travellers.

It’s not hard to see why.

Spend enough time looking at photos and footage of Japan — and those lucky enough to experience them in person — and you’ll be witness to the atmospheric pools of natural hot spring water surrounded by the picturesque settings of the Japanese landscape. Put in the health benefits and the relaxing experience alongside this, and you have a recipe for utter perfection. 

But what if I told you there is in fact a chance of experiencing something very similar in the UK? 

In order to fully appreciate the significance, we first have to understand what makes hot springs what they are.

Understanding the Japanese hot spring

The most important and necessary ingredient for hot springs to exist is the presence of geothermal activity. Japan is a volcanic island and as such has a lot of activity rumbling beneath its surface. This heats under earth water deposits and causes it to rise to the surface; Japanese hot spring resorts are built upon the sites of these deposits.

This is what makes the possibility of hot springs a rare event in the UK. 

The water contained in these deposits is not the average bathwater variety, it contains many varying minerals that are also brought up to the surface and have been proven to beneficial to your health: Skin conditions such as eczema, and rashes can be improved as well as some internal afflictions such as arthritis and circulation problems. 

Aside from the water itself, the setting is perhaps almost as important. Japanese hot springs are almost exclusively housed in a space that is open to the outside world in some way that aids in the relaxation process. 

Many hot springs are attached to Japanese Ryokans which are traditional style inns and are situated in rural settings, this means the view from within a steaming hot spring is often leafy, green, rocky and incredibly natural. While the water aids in physical ailments, the setting and landscape definitely aids in psychological ailments i.e stress. 

A public Japanese hot spring by trees
Alpsdake, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The rules of a Japanese hot spring

It is worth noting that Japanese hot springs have a number of rules, processes and restrictions that must be followed whenever entering a public onsen is considered: these include:

  • No bathing costumes/be naked
  • Washing before entering
  • Don’t put hair or face in the water.
  • No tattoos
  • No noise. 

The first three in the list is to do with contamination of the water. In order to keep it as pristine as possible nothing other than your naked self should be in there, this includes no germs from mouth and nose etc or any loose hair floating around. Tattoos are somewhat a cultural stigma that are more associated with criminal gangs in Japan than elsewhere in the world. Finally no noise is pretty obvious — everyone wants to enjoy the blissful surroundings they find themselves in. 

The big question then is can these things truly be experienced in the UK?

UK hot springs

Compared to Japan, the UK is not a volcanic island and so the availability for natural hot springs are limited, however, there are in fact places that contain geothermal activity — albeit the process is a little different. 

To be classed as a hot spring the water has to be a minimum of 37°c and there is in fact only one location that fits that criteria — Bath in somerset. 

the good news is none of the Japanese rules to apply to the baths and hot springs found in the UK.

The hot springs of Bath

First discovered and utilised nearly 3000 years ago, the hot springs are the closest we have to experiencing a Japanese style hot spring. There are in fact three springs concentrated in Bath that provide water for hot spring relaxation; the Cross Spring, Hetling Spring and the King’s Spring. There are of course some differences but also some similarities.

Much like the Ryokans of Japan, the hot springs are not merely a single entity but part of a complex that has many other amenities. The water here reaches the surface at approximately 45°c packed with minerals such as:

  • Sulphate 
  • Calcium 
  • Chloride 
  • Sodium 
  • Bicarbonate
  • Magnesium
  • Silica
  • Iron

This means that the water will have very similar properties to a Japanese hot spring. 

Where things begin to differ is in the setting you will find yourself in. Many of the hot springs in Bath are not in a rural setting so you wont be getting a lush green outlook like the picturesque photos and videos, however, that’s not to say they don’t have their own charm; it’s one of the true necessities after all in order to relax both body and mind.

In order to explain this further, let’s take a look at some specific hot springs we can visit. 

roman baths
Photo by Paul Cuoco on Unsplash

Thermae Bath Spa

While Bath is the only location in the UK to contain natural hot springs; Thermae Bath Spa is the only public and dedicated location in the city where you can experience them. 

Within the complex are multiple different ‘baths’ and facilities, the main being the rooftop pool. The phycological charm to this setting is the rooftop views across the city, yet not too far in the distance the green hills of the surrounding countryside can blissfully be observed while enjoying the slightly cooled 33.5°c hot spring water. 

The other baths within the complex are the Minerva Bath which appears to be a much more modern interpretation — the waters are housed in a large indoor swimming pool but with aesthetic curves and lighting. The water is still of the hot spring variety but in a more familiar environment. 

The other is the Cross Bath which is again an open-air bath albeit a much smaller and intimate setting. This bath more closely resembles that of a roman style hot spring with their unique architecture surrounding it entirely. 

Spa Village at Gainsborough Bath Spa Hotel

Although not as entirely accessible as the dedicated Thermae Bath Spa, the Spa Village within this luxury hotel in the city of Bath also utilises the natural hot spring water for its own use. 

The Hetling Spring provides the natural water for its three thermal baths of varying temperatures and contains similar properties to those found in Thermae Bath Spa and beyond. What is a little different here is that it’s not as close to a traditional Japanese hot spring experience; they are not open to the outside world and resemble more of a familiar swimming pool environment — which may be better for some people.

Japanese hot spring conclusion

Experiencing a traditional Japanese hot spring exactly as it is in Japan, is currently not available to us; yet something very similar with all the health benefits and the relaxation they provide surprisingly is. With its own unique landscape and heritage, along with customs that are very familiar to us, heading down to the city of Bath with a mind to try out a hot spring ‘bath’ could be the most accessible way to experience a Japanese style hot spring … in the UK.