Japanese hot springs have been rather popular for centuries. In the past visits to such hot springs (also known as onsen) were hailed not only as one of the relaxation means but also for various beneficial properties attributed to thermal water. Nowadays Japanese hot springs are still considered to be the major attraction for vacationing in Japan. Many of those springs have their towns which have been developed and modernized into large-scale resort complexes with a wide range of services provided.
It won't be an exaggeration to say that Japanese hot springs are an attribute of the well-known Japanese culture. As a matter of fact, there is no Japanese person who has never been to the hot spring or experienced all the healthy onsen features.
Speaking about the onsen description, it is necessary to mention that every onsen is divided into two separate areas: women's and men's. In the past the area for men was significantly larger than the one for women. Nevertheless, nowadays many Japanese hot springs have a larger women's area. This can be easily explained by the fact that an average person who takes a trip to Japanese hot springs tends to be female. At the same time some onsens have common baths, however they are not very common. Prior entering Japanese hot springs it's necessary to wash yourself. Do not get scared or surprised if someone offers to wash your back. This is considered to be normal and common courtesy.
What is really worthy admitting is that not all the Japanese hot springs are natural meaning their source comes from the earth. As a matter of fact really natural hot springs are known to come from the nearby volcano that's why water is supposed to have strong sulfur smell. And only natural Japanese hot springs are called onsens. Besides them there is lots of hot springs in Japan which are not formed by the natural source. They are heated artificially and called sentou. This kind of Japanese hot springs can only be a relaxing option.
Thus, under the Japanese Hot Spring Law (1948) the government recognizes the onsen as one of the hot springs, which reach certain standards as for the mineral composition and temperature. In 1990 the number of such onsens reached about two thousand and thirty. However, still many experts believe that there has been only 64 Japanese hot springs which are capable of providing truly medical treatment and contribute to the people's health improvement.
Many hot springs are used mainly for bathing. However, in some places the heat released by those springs is utilized for heating hothouses and rooms, for cooking food or brewing sake, sometimes people even use it for making bean paste (called miso). Additionally, many Japanese hot springs are now being outstanding energy sources used for geothermal electricity generation. Nevertheless, despite the national program of promoting such a role of Japanese hot springs geothermal electricity generation still remains rather small in its scale and limited due to the tourism and environmental concerns.