“Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” Proverbs 20:9
Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 2,500-mile geographic arc notorious for destructive volcanic activity and earthquakes, but it is accompanied by a major benefit… a preponderance of onsens. Onsens (温泉) are geothermally heated springs, found throughout Japan, and they are widely used for bathing. Because of the abundance of such naturally heated water, the act of bathing is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and has become a popular form of relaxation, not just a utilitarian exercise in hygiene. The entire economy of some small towns is driven by the availability of onsens in their area, attracting thousands of tourists eager to test the local waters. Large onsen hotels draw customers by offering a variety of baths in an attractive venue and serving a special meal. Almost all of the onsens, whether they are large or small, feature an outdoor portion called a “rotenburo,” which is usually situated in a peaceful, natural setting to enhance relaxation.
Onsens are not to be confused with a sento, which is also a public bath, but the water in a sento is heated artificially and therefore doesn’t contain any local minerals which onsen operators eagerly advertise to attract customers. The universal symbol for hot springs in Japan is the simple mark ♨, but as alternative, the Japanese characters 湯 or more simply ゆ are frequently used. These symbols guide eager patrons searching for a place to unwind from the stress of everyday life while serving the dual purpose of getting clean.
The procedure for using such bathing facilities is universal in Japan and instructions for the inexperienced foreigner are often posted. Bathing stations come equipped with stools, showers, faucets, a portable basin and usually, soap and shampoo, although many customers choose to bring their own, along with a small hand towel for washing. The ritual of bathing MUST be performed before entering the pools shared with others and many bathers discretely use their personal hand towel as a form of modesty. Once a popular practice, mixed bathing has almost disappeared in Japan, but many places still prohibit tattoos in an effort to discourage members of the yakuza (Japanese mafia) from coming. Some older Japanese apartments did not have their own bath or shower, so people who resided in such places routinely used the neighborhood “mom and pop” onsen or sento to get clean. These, too, are rapidly becoming relics of the past as the trend is towards larger venues offering a variety of options, including a restaurant and shops selling local merchandise.
People frequent onsens for a variety of reasons, but the basic objective remains the same: to get clean. However, there is an essential form of cleanliness that is not available at the local hot spring or through any human endeavor. That is a cleansing of the heart. No amount of scrubbing, soap or hot water can rid us of our sinful thoughts, words and actions before a holy, righteous God. Recognizing this conundrum, the author of Proverbs 20:9 wrote in despair: “Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?” The obvious, yet unsettling answer to his question is: “no one.” But fortunately, there is one exception to this rule. That is Jesus, the Son of God, who alone lived a sinless life and through His sacrificial death, provided cleansing and forgiveness for all. Therefore, the Apostle John could declare with boldness: “If we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify (cleanse) us from all unrighteousness.” (I John 1:9) That is real cleansing.