Hot Springs (Onsen)
Visiting a hot spring, or onsen, is a wonderful way to truly experience Japanese culture. With over 3,000 across the country, you are sure to find one during your travels.
The minerals in the water offer varying medicinal properties that make you feel refreshed and rejuvenated, especially after a full day of sightseeing.
Whether you visit an onsen while staying at a ryokan or just go to a public bath, the same rules of etiquette apply. Here are some tips to ensure you have a good experience.
5 Steps to Enjoying a Japanese Onsen
1. Completely Undress
The idea of being naked tends to be the most difficult part for many Americans (my mother recounts her story in Naked Beauty). Once you overcome your fear of being naked, the rest is easy!
When you first enter, there is a changing area with lockers, boxes, or crates to put your belongings. This is where you take off all your clothes and place them in the designated area.
You can’t take anything into the bathing area, except for a small hand towel (this is usually provided or available for a fee). Do not wear a bathing suit or take a large towel to cover yourself. You can use the small hand towel to cover yourself while walking, but it does not go into the bathtub.
It may seem tempting, but do not take your camera. Unless you know you are the only person in the onsen, pictures are strictly forbidden.
2. Wash Yourself
Leave the changing area and go into the bathing area. Before you head to the bathtub, you must wash yourself. There are bathing areas with soap, shampoo, and conditioner.
Find a vacant bathing area and sit on the stool. Do not stand and take a shower.
While you are washing your hair or lathering your body with soap, be sure to turn off the water. Only turn on the water when you are using it.
3. Get into the Bathtub
Now you are ready to soak in the bathtub. At this point, remove your towel from your body and put it on your head or in a safe place away from the bathtub. Do not put the towel in the water.
While in the bathtub, do not swim or talk loudly. This is a time for relaxation.
4. Try all the Bathtubs
Hot springs vary in size ranging from many tubs to just one. Be sure to try all the bathtubs available. Each has different mineral content and beneficial properties.
Note: The hot springs are very hot, so it is best to stay in the bathing area for a maximum of 30 minutes. And only stay in one tub for up to 10 minutes.
5. Go Back to the Changing Room
When you are finished, dry your body with your small hand towel and go back to the changing room. Do not enter the changing room dripping with water.
There is no need to wash your body again before entering the changing room. The minerals will continue to be absorbed for the next few hours, so it’s best to only rinse with water or not at all.
A Note About Tattoos
Tattoos are a sensitive topic in Japan. Most people in Japan do not have tattoos because they are historically associated with gangs. Of course, things are changing and you may see young teenagers with tattoos, especially in Tokyo.
However, most hot springs will not allow entry to anyone who has a tattoo, even foreigners. If you have a small tattoo, you can probably cover it with a waterproof bandage (also sold at convenient stores), but understand you may get dirty looks from older Japanese people sharing the bath with you.
If you don’t want to chance it, the other option is to go to a private bath. These are often available by reservation only and cost a bit more than the public baths.
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Becki and Shawn
Japan Travel Specialists
Hi, we’re Becki and Shawn! We love Japan and are truly passionate about Japan and Japan travel.
We’ve lived, worked, and traveled in Japan for 20+ years, so we know where to go, what to see, and how to get there. Join us in Japan for an adventure of a lifetime!