In the past year, I’ve travelled to the East (hitting Japan) back to the West (In Yellowstone National Park, USA), and somewhere in the middle (Iceland). And although these countries couldn’t be more different from one another, there was one thing that I managed to find in all of them. Hot springs. As I came to find out after having three vastly different experiences, the term hot springs is a very loose definition. Some are heated naturally through geothermal springs and some are artificial. Some are luxurious, costly experiences, and some are unmonitored and free for all to enjoy.
1. Oedo Onsen Monogatari (Japan)
The first hot spring I went to was at an onsen in Japan, also known as a bathhouse. Onsens are known in Japan to be places for social gatherings and relaxation. Instead of a bar, as in western countries, students and businesspeople would come here after a long day to unwind. There were many parts to this onsen, from a long winding river that people used as a footspa, to a nude bathing area. This onsen was heated artificially, but the rocks and shrubbery give the feel of bathing in a river in the middle of a garden. Everyone is given a Yukata to wear (a type of kimono) and were free to roam the onsen to do whatever activities they wanted. The onsen also offered massages, saunas, and even a fish spa, where fish can peck at the dead skin on your feet. This onsen also had an inner court where there were traditional decorations, Japanese carnival games and also where they sold food/alcohol. Prepare at least half a day to enjoy this onsen and enjoy the baths both when it’s daytime, as well as nighttime. The atmosphere differs greatly depending on the time of day.
2. Blue Lagoon (Iceland)
The hot spring Blue Lagoon was also in the form of a spa, but it varied from Japan’s hot spring in multiple ways. First of all, the weather in Iceland was a lot colder, making the experience of hot spring more intense. The contrast between the warmth of the water and the almost freezing temperatures above the water was very striking. The water in Blue Lagoon also lived up to its name. It was a very strong baby blue colour.
The quality of the water was also different from Japan. Blue Lagoon is filled with natural salts and minerals, giving the water a murky opaque colour, as well as the smell of rotten eggs (from the sulphur). The lagoon is surrounded by rocks and mud deposits that you can put on as a facial mask. Blue Lagoon also has bars floating in certain locations where you can order drinks and take it with you as you explore the lagoon.
Note, the minerals in the water at Blue Lagoon have been known to help certain skin conditions, like psoriasis, but are very harsh on your hair. Be sure to tie your hair up before you go in the water!
3. Boiling River (Yellowstone National Park, USA)
The boiling river in Yellowstone is the only one in this list that no one has capitalized on! Someone should fix that. (It’s in America too..) Now, I must be clear when I say that all hot springs in Yellowstone are extremely dangerous. These are active geothermal sites and many visitors have been known to die almost immediately after falling into these springs, as they average in the 90 degree celsius range. There are signs posted all around the park to stay within the boundaries of the fencing/boardwalk, and you would be wise to pay them heed.
That being said, this ‘hot spring’ is really a river that mixes with runoff from a faraway geothermal site. This is a tourist attraction, and visitors are allowed to swim in this river.
The river, named Gardner river, feels freezing when juxtaposed against the runoff water that flows from the rocks on the left (of the picture). The source of the hot runoff is actually kilometres away, but is still scalding when it hits the Gardner river, reaching 56 degrees Celsius. If you are not careful and you stay too close to the runoff for too long, you can leave the river with burns. But, once you find the perfect spot between the freezing and boiling water, it’s a pretty sweet experience.
The Boiling River is quite hard to find, as park officials try not to advertise it, and are quick to correct you if you mention swimming in a hot spring. Technically you can’t swim in any hot spring (this is just the runoff from a hot spring). In order to find this river, go to the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs and they will give you a slip of paper with clear directions.
So there you have it, three very different experiences from three very different types of ‘hot springs’. Each hot spring took aspects of the culture of the country they were found in. The social community found in Japan was present in its Onsen, the varying temperatures of Iceland was evident in the Lagoon, and the stark beauty of America’s nature was in the River. Try all of them, or at least one. It’ll be worth it.