One of the most popular local pleasures is bathing in one of Japan’s numerous onsen (hot springs). I honestly can’t think of a better way to unwind and soak up tension from work and life. Unfortunately for visitors, onsen also comes with a slew of rules that can make it difficult to navigate. Of course, this means that going to an onsen for the first time can be a bit unsettling. I’ve put together this complete guide to assist you to avoid any mistakes.
What is an Onsen?
Let’s start with an explanation of what an onsen is. A hot spring is referred to as an onsen in Japanese. Natural, mineral-rich thermal waters emerge from beneath the surface to provide these hot springs due to Japan’s geographical location. The health advantages of these volcanic waters are thought to include stress alleviation, skin disorders, muscle aches, and other diseases. Onsens have been around since the second part of the first century, and they have always followed stringent onsen etiquette. Fortunately, this time-honored custom has endured, retaining its popularity among both young and old. There are nearly 2,000 onsens in Japan, ranging from outdoor and indoor baths to sophisticated and eccentric onsen theme parks.
Once you know what to look for, finding an onsen is simple. They are generally identified by a “hot bath” emblem and feature long drapes (noren) at the entry.
On the surface, sento and onsen appear to be the same, but onsen is frequently found in more rural places, as they are always close to a source of naturally hot water.
While it is not difficult to discover an onsen in a large city, the “hot bath” emblem in a metropolis most usually indicates a sento rather than an onsen.
Wash Before Entering the OnsenMost onsen will feature a shower area — either inside or just outside the bathing area — where you must wash your body before entering. If you enter an onsen with soap, grime, or perspiration on your body, you will be kicked out of the spring. Consider this a chance to scrub yourself down thoroughly, as if you were getting ready for full-body skin treatment. After all, spring contains a wealth of natural substances and minerals that are beneficial to the skin.
1. You Must be Completely Naked
There’s no getting around it. Clothing, towels, and any other used item are considered soiled or “filthy” in Japan and should never, ever be carried into an onsen. Thus, nudity is expressly needed, yet it’s not a big concern. If you’ve ever had to shower in gym class (and who hasn’t? ), nakedness in an onsen is far less embarrassing because: a) you’re no longer a squeaky-voiced adolescent,
b) no one cares what you look like, and
c) you won’t get towel-snapped. However, certain onsen does allow bathing suits, but this is quite rare (and such an onsen will usually not provide the most authentic experience).
2. Modesty is Appreciated
While nuance is essential, modesty is also expected. As you transition from the changing room to the shower to the onsen and back, use your tiny towel to cover your nether parts casually. Most Japanese men and women will be doing the same thing.
3. Never Dip Your Towel in the Water
This harkens back to Rule #2, which states that towels are filthy and should not be used in the water. The majority of individuals merely cover their heads with the tiny towel handed to them when they check into the onsen. It may appear amusing, but it is the simplest technique to avoid losing your towel while also not polluting the water. You won’t feel as weird sitting in a 110-degree tub with a towel on your head if everyone else is doing it.
4. Don’t Go Under (Or Get Your Hair in the Water)
In an onsen, dunking your head under the water is strictly prohibited – and with good reason. No one wants oral germs hanging about in a bacterial-friendly atmosphere. It’s also a good idea to avoid dipping your hair into the water, primarily to keep oils and residual grooming products out of the water, but also to keep hair out of the drains (they do drain and clean them often).
5. No Tattoos
In a society where most people still identify tattoos with Japan’s mafia, the Yakuza, this is a massive no-no. You shouldn’t have any trouble getting in if you have little tattoos that can be concealed with a waterproof bandage, but if you’re completely covered in tattoos, your best choice is to reserve a private onsen through a ryokan. Some onsen in Tokyo cater exclusively to foreigners and are hence more tolerant of tattoos (and nudity, as indicated above), but these are few and few between.
6. Stay and Relax After your Dip
After you visit the hot spring, most onsens include spaces where you can relax. These facilities, which include anything from hot sand rooms to minibars to lounge spaces with massaging chairs and glasses of Kirin or sake, are the icing on the onsen cake, and you should take advantage of them while you can. You won’t be able to slumber under a mound of warm sand anywhere else. It can only be found in Japan!
How to Onsen
[Before and In the Bath]
Before Entering the Facility
The term “onsen” can refer to both the hot spring and the facilities that surround it, which are frequently part of a hotel or resort. If you’re going on a day excursion and don’t have a reservation, you may normally get a ticket from a vending machine or a person standing at the building’s door.
It’s worth noting that some facilities will ask you to take off your street shoes at the door and store them in a locker or shelf. Other facilities may require you to remove your shoes before entering the swimming area. When in doubt, observe what others are doing and get advice from the personnel.
If you have luggage, you can also ask the staff if they can store it at the desk for you temporarily. Unless you plan on staying overnight, it’s best not to pack too many bags.
The Changing Room
- Keep an eye on your feet – Most onsens require you to remove your shoes before entering. Although this isn’t always the case, you must always do so before entering the locker room.
- Don’t stay at the entrance – The scene can be quite cool, especially if it’s your first time seeing an onsen. Make sure you don’t linger near the entrance, though. Other persons may need to enter or exit the building. Physical contact between strangers is often avoided in Japan, and standing near the entrance to the bath area feels almost like a violation of other guests’ personal space (all while everyone is wearing only their “birth clothes”).
- Get ready to strip down — No clothes, swimsuits, or large towels of any kind are permitted in the bath area. Don’t be concerned! You’ll go unnoticed, and you’ll fit right in! All of your possessions can be stored in the lockers in the changing room.
If you can, bring a little towel, but if you can’t, don’t worry. In most onsen, you are welcome to use their clean towels, but this may be a fee-based service. Check at the facility’s entrance.
You may use the little towel in the bath area, but you must not use it to enter the water.
Before Entering the Bath
Wash your hands – while some people rinse their hands before entering a bath (and then shower), it is usual (and courteous) to completely wash one’s hands before entering the bath. If you brought your soaps, make sure they’re properly tucked away near the shower so they don’t irritate other customers.
Etiquettes and Tips
Along with all of the foregoing, folks who don’t frequent an onsen (or sento) may be unaware of several unwritten norms.
- Don’t jump, dive, or splash in the bath – When entering the bath, don’t jump, dive, or splash in it. Sit back and take it all in.
- Don’t take pictures or movies in the changing room – it goes without saying that taking pictures and recordings in the changing room (and the bath area) is prohibited or, at the at least, strongly discouraged. If you absolutely must use your phone, extend your arms all the way inside your locker and use it that way.
- Bind your hair in a lovely, tight knot – If you have long hair, tie it gently after showering.
- Be aware of your surroundings — onsen showers are typically close together. As a result, it’s critical to avoid splattering other individuals with water or soap. You’ll be happy when others follow suit!
- More rinsing – some onsen will have a large hot water tub near the entrance. By scooping up water with a bucket, you can use it to rinse yourself before or after entering a bath (or whenever you choose).
- Keep the water running – rinsing yourself as you move from one bath to the next is a good idea. Saunas are also available in some locations. Rinse yourself before entering a bath if you utilise the sauna.
- Skip grooming – While some people shave their beards in the bath while showering, it’s more common to avoid grooming altogether.
- Hey, I’m up here – In order to create a welcoming and delightful environment for everybody, clients try to avoid gazing (however briefly) at other customers. When you’re in a gorgeous spot, it can be difficult to maintain a mile-long stare in front of you, but make sure you don’t look (or worse, stare) at anyone.
- Keep the chit-chat to a minimum — Onsen are social spaces, but they are also places where people go to rest and unwind in healthful waters and tranquilly. It’s perfectly acceptable to talk to your friends and family while taking a bath, just keep the volume quiet.
[After the Bath]
- Dry yourself – After you’ve finished in the bath, don’t go into the changing room dripping wet. Because the only towel you’re permitted in the bath is a very small one, it may seem difficult (and it is), but try to dry yourself as best you can with it.
- Clean up – if you washed yourself in buckets and sat on stools, make sure you wash them before leaving.
- Is it possible for me to have a seat here? – If the changing area has chairs or benches, you can only use them after you’ve put on some clothes.
Some of the Most Famous Onsen Spots in Japan
Kusatsu – Gunma: This is perhaps one of Japan’s most well-known “onsen towns.” This location is an onsen resort with dozens of baths, some of which are even free, not far from Tokyo (and managed by the city or the community).
Hakone – Kanagawa: Hakone is the most well-known onsen resort in the Tokyo area. The calming baths and boiling sulphur springs of Owakudani Valley will be available to you. Don’t miss the stunning Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, which features one of Mount Fuji’s most iconic views, as well as numerous shrines and a boat cruise on Lake Ashi.
Kurokawa – Oita: Kurokawa is a lovely tiny town to walk through. It oozes culture and history, with nature all around and exquisite wooden structures. Many of its pools are open-air, making it a popular onsen destination. Some of the smaller ones, located near Kumamoto Castle and dating back to the feudal era when numerous lords used to enjoy them, are among the most historically significant.
Noboribetsu – Hokkaido: Noboribetsu is famous for its “Hell Valley” (Jigokudani), a volcanic crater that gives onsen water its distinct properties. Demon statues adorn the city centre, and country roads lead you through the Noboribetsu Primeval Forest and to breathtaking views of Lake Kuttara.
Finally the most crucial rule of all: have fun.
Despite its calming aspect, swimming in a hot spring can be strenuous. And bathers, especially those with high blood pressure or other medical issues, should avoid overdoing it. The bath water is usually hot, and inhaling all of that heat can be exhausting. It’s best to bathe in small bursts, pausing to chill down now and then. Before and after a bath, drink lots of water and avoid alcoholic beverages, which dehydrate your body. It’s also not a good idea to bathe right after a meal. Know best Japanese street foods here.
Furthermore, many hot spring pools have slick floors. And other hot spring waters are hazy or opaque, making it impossible to see underwater steps. To avoid slip and fall accidents, enter the pools cautiously and move around the bathtubs carefully.
For many people, onsens are a completely new and frightening experience. It may seem unusual to enter a bath with naked strangers, but the Japanese have been doing it for years. We hope that this onsen etiquette guide has allayed your anxieties about participating in this traditional Japanese experience.