Embrace the Mizuburo | Hot & Cold Cycles in Japan’s Onsen

A mizuburo cold bath next to a sauna at a traditional Japanese ryokan

Contrary to what most of you think, producing content about off the beaten path travel in Japan is actually more of a side hobby for me. Sure, it does take an enormous amount of my time and yes I do make money from being a creator but my role as a freelance marketer is my true professional identity. Though it certainly seems like I am living my best life as I traverse the countryside, the reality is that I am glued to my laptop screen most of the time trying to make my clients’ ads work. As you can imagine, the dual stress of living as a creator cum marketer can add up and one of the only reprieves that works for me is the mizuburo.

For the uninitiated out there, know that mizuburo literally means “water bath” but here you need to understand that the H2O being referenced is specifically cold water. Why on earth would one want to plunge themselves into a frigid bath? Well, if you’ve been following what a lot of people in the alternative health space are doing (such as Dr. Paul Saladino, Joe Rogan, etc.), you’ll know that there’s all sorts of benefits to cold-induced hormesis. As great as these are though, the benefits of a cold bath for me are more mental. After all, it’s really hard to worry about why that one ad campaign just isn’t converting and whether it’s the creative or the landing page when you’re fighting off hypothermia.

While you could of course bathe in icy waters in the comfort of your own home, my favorite place to do it is actually at any onsen or local sento. For years, I used to go to Take-no-Yu in Azabu Juban but these days, I live a bit further away from my former local haunt. Recently, I either hit up Shimizu-yu in Musashi-Koyama or Togoshi Ginza Onsen. Regardless, there are a number of places where you can chill out (get it?) both in Tokyo and in other parts of Japan. Seeing as such establishments are more spacious, it would behoove you to skip the home-made ice cold plunge pool and instead embrace using a shared bathhouse.

I don’t want to entirely reinvent the wheel here but for the sake of first timers, I want to go over the customs of going to a Japanese onsen or sento. First, you’ll want to go and wash your hair and body with soap and shampoo. Some places provide them whereas others don’t. To begin with, sit on the small stool and begin washing your body of sweat and other forms of filth. Only thereafter will you be clear to go join the other bathers in the primary bathing areas. Be sure to check out this ultimate guide if you want to know more in advance about the rules and etiquette around using a public bath.

Which Hot Springs Have ‘Em

Mizuburo are often found at onsen and sento that have saunas in them

All things considered, mizuburo are actually something that exists for fans of the sauna. I believe the practice of using an ice cold plunge pool following a long and sweaty session in the sauna entered the country first via Russia. While I hope no one quotes me on this, the Finnish saunas don’t seem to make use of ice baths in the same way that Japan does. Instead, the Finns tend to employ of their clean but cool oceans (or at least that was the example that I experienced when in Helsinki for work) Thus, the Japanese style that exists likely had to come from somewhere else.

Regardless of where the mizuburo originated from though, one thing that I can say with a high degree of certainty is that you’ll only find them at onsen and sento that have saunas. Rather than regulate their body temperature by submerging themselves into a cold bath, I’ve noticed a lot of Japanese people (well, the men at least) instead prefer to just sit out under the sky when possible and let the air cool them off. In fact, with the exception of a cold shower, I don’t think I’ve seen that many other psychos out there who are keen to expose their bodies to the arctic waters of the mizuburo after a hot spring soak.

Finally, note that Dormy Inns always have the required facilities to enjoy that post-soak mizuburo ecstasy. This is one of the many, many reasons that the chain is my go-to option for accommodations when traveling in the countryside. When sourcing content for this blog, I’ll often walk up to 30–40 kilometers in a day and relaxing the mizuburo after boiling myself away in the hot water is the perfect means of soothing my sore legs. Because of this, I always try to book with Dormy Inn when I can.

How to Use a Cold Bath

A mizuburo next to a sauna at one of Japan’s many Dormy Inns

Let’s now cover how to go about using the mizuburo. While I prefer to do cycles with the hot springs, a lot of other people instead prefer to warm up with the sauna. In either case, the best way to enjoy the mizuburo is to do it in cyclical sets. Should you be using the sauna though, you’ll first want to make a straight line for the showers. There, you’ll want to wipe any sweat off of your body before going to relax in the mizuburo. Note that many public bath houses actually charge a separate entrance fee for the sauna so be sure to check if this is the case before getting naked and entering into the bathing area.

Now, I like to begin my initial round by first warming up in a hot bath. Usually, this one doesn’t need to be a particularly long soak but it’s to get my body prepared enough for the mizuburo (it’s hell going in without first warming up). Being sure not to forget my face towel, I’ll then rush my now-steaming frame over to the cold bath (keep an eye out for the 水風呂 characters should there be no English). Since I am not covered in sweat like the other sauna boys out there, I can actually go straight from the onsen into the cold baths and skip the shower phase.

On my first trip to the mizuburo, I tend to take things slowly. I’ll start by getting my legs in there and then ever so slowly lower my torso into the cold bath. While your body will get used to the temperatures come later sets of hot and cold, the first time can be quite the shock to the system. Take this one slowly and only put your arms fully underwater once you feel comfortable submerging them. Typically, I’ll stay in as long as I can before making a mad dash over to the onsen to again warm up.

While it depends on how long I’ve got, I’ll usually do three or four cycles of this before calling it quits and making my way to the changing rooms. Though I usually am pretty lenient with myself on the first round, I often try to endure the cold bath water as long as I can on subsequent dips. This style of self-torture is what truly leads to me being able to forget about all of the trivial worries of the world. After all, the minutiae really don’t matter when you’re enjoying that mizuburo ecstasy.

Tips for Staying in Longer

A Japanese man cools off in the icy waters found below a covering of snow

I’d like to end this one-off piece on Japan’s mizuburo by talking about some tips that I’ve developed to stay in these wintery baths a bit longer than I otherwise would be able to. The following is a list of some of the tactics that I’ve naturally developed by making a trip to the onsen into a meditative experience.

  • Keep Still
    One of the things that leads me to actually feel the freezing conditions is when the water is somehow displaced. This often happens when steamy individuals fresh out of the sauna come splashing into the mizuburo. Though I am not sure of the science here, there’s something about the movement of the water that just makes it feel colder.
  • Keep Silent
    I’ve found that making any noise really breaks the trance that can come about when you are trying to submerge yourself into the chilly waters of the mizuburo. I’ll usually envision doing takigyo (waterfall meditation) while bathing in the mizuburo as it makes it a bit more immersive.
  • Extremities Out
    While you need to be careful to not take up too much space so that the people coming to and from the sauna can actually join you in bathing, I’ve found that keeping your hands and/or feet out of the tub can really improve how long you’re able to stay in. Put them out in the air and you should be able to stay in a few more minutes.

If any of you out there are also fans of the mizuburo and have some tips and tricks to stay in for longer, please feel free to leave them down in the comments. Likewise, also let me know what’s your modus operandi when it comes to using one. Do you do the standard sauna-to-mizuburo style or do you prefer the hot baths like I do?

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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