No trip to Japan is complete without embracing the cultural phenomenon that is public bathing. As a series of volcanic islands, Japan has thousands of hot springs; pools of water naturally heated by geothermal energy. As well as being fun and relaxing, using a hot spring – or Onsen in Japanese – can have amazing health benefits, including stress and pain relief, and skin healing.
But despite the health benefits of using an Onsen, many tourists visiting Japan are too nervous to visit one due to the fear of making a cultural faux pas (while naked, to make matters worse).
As a result, too many people are missing out on this wonderful traditional Japanese pastime. This article provides guidance on how to use a Japanese Onsen, so you can head to the hot springs feeling confident and ready to relax.
Onsen are for relaxing, not worrying
Before setting off the Onsen, remind yourself not to worry about making mistakes. Japanese people often get a reputation for being sticklers for manners and protocol, but in reality, most are kind people who understand you are unfamiliar with Onsen etiquette. They will not judge you if you do something slightly unorthodox.
The biggest things are easy to remember and will be covered in this article. But in any event, just enjoy your trip and don’t be afraid to relax.
Preparing for your trip to the Onsen
• You might not be allowed in if you have tattoos or body piercings
This is one of the rumors that tend to get spread about Japan, which is unfortunately true. If you have tattoos or body piercings, you may not be allowed into the Onsen. This is because tattoos have a reputation for being associated with crime and anti-social behavior in Japan (particularly with older generations).
However, many Onsen are becoming more liberal and will at least make exceptions for non-Japanese people with tattoos. Make sure you check the Onsen’s website, or give it a call, to inquire about its policies before you turn up.
• Make sure you’re hydrated
As well as the baths, there might be other services such as a steam room and sauna. Therefore, ensure you are prepared to sweat. A lot. Drink plenty of water before you enter the Onsen, so you don’t get dehydrated.
• Find some towels
If you aren’t able to bring your own towels, some Onsen will provide them (often in exchange for a fee). Some Onsen even have vending machines where you can purchase amenities including towels, razors, and soap.
You will want to take two towels: A large towel for drying yourself off after you come out of the Onsen and a small towel to bring into the Onsen with you. You can use this to sit on, to put on your head, or to cover your privates if you want.
Entering the Onsen
• Take off your shoes
Most Onsen will not allow you to wear shoes, and you will have to remove them in reception. There will usually be shoe lockers for you to store your shoes until you are ready to leave.
• Prepare to strip off
You should be comfortable with getting naked in front of other people because you will not be allowed to wear any clothes or bathing suits into the Onsen.
There will be a changing area with lockers for you to store your clothes and possessions before entering the baths.
Don’t worry if you’re not comfortable with public nudity. Communal bathing is a tradition that goes back centuries in Japan. Nobody will look at you or care that you’re naked (so make an effort not to gawp at other people as well).
• Make sure you enter the right section
Most Onsen separate their baths. So, with a few exceptions (mostly at private hotels or guest houses), you will only be with people of your own gender. If you plan to visit an Onsen with a partner or spouse, make sure you agree how long you are going to spend in the Onsen before entering your respective section.
If your Onsen doesn’t have signs in English which specify which section is for males and females, look for the following Japanese characters to help you:
男 = man
女 = woman
• Always wash before entering the baths
This is one of the most important steps. It is considered extremely rude to get into the baths without washing first. There will always be showers, stools, buckets, soap, shampoo, and conditioner available as you enter the hot spring area.
Ensure you wash thoroughly, using soap. You can even shave if you want to. Then pat yourself dry using your small towel before entering the baths.
Using the Onsen
There is no rule about which baths to use first. However, here are some tips for using the Onsen correctly.
• Always take a small towel into the sauna
If your Onsen has a sauna, never enter it without your small towel. You will need it to sit on (remember, you are naked). It will likely be frowned upon if you do not.
• Don’t splash, swim, or generally be noisy in the Onsen
The baths are a place to sit and relax. They are NOT a swimming pool. If you are disruptive, it is unlikely your fellow bathers will comment (although they might mutter among themselves). Even talking too loud may attract some unwelcome glances.
Don’t worry too much though. Japanese bathers will understand that this is a new experience for you and are likely to forgive any unintentional faux pas. Just ensure you keep a watchful eye out in case you are accidentally disturbing others.
• Don’t put your towel in the water
Towels are taken into the Onsen for your initial wash, for sitting on, and for putting on your face or head while in the baths. Make sure you do not put your towel into the baths themselves as this is considered unhygienic.
Leaving the Onsen
You will probably be feeling super relaxed after your soak in the Onsen, so why stop there? Many Onsen also offer spaces for you to nap, as well as massage and beauty services.
So, your first trip to the Onsen has been a success. Time to start planning your next visit! Japanese Onsen is one of the most relaxing ways to experience Japanese culture. We guarantee you will be desperate to go back soon.