Onsen, or traditional Japanese hot spring baths, are ubiquitous around Japan, and a wonderful chance to relax and soak in warm waters with high mineral contents, that can be incredible for both the skin and spirits. Onsen are much different from western public pools or hot tubs, because not only are they meant more for relaxation and unwinding at the end of the day, they are also enjoyed completely nude. This guide to onsen etiquette, that is, traditional hot springs or communal bathing facilities (called sento but used in the same manner as hot spring baths), that are found in nearly every hotel, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), and resort in Japan, will teach you exactly what to expect, what to do, and most importantly, what not to do, when using an onsen, so that you can bathe with confidence, and without committing any social faux pas.
Bathing nude amongst strangers, especially in another country where you don’t speak the language fluently, is an interesting experience, and may seem scary at first to foreigners. I had my first introduction to communal bathing on our first trip to Europe, and at first I thought I was misunderstanding the what the bathing attendant was saying to me in German when she told me that I was required to take off my swimsuit and sit in the saunas completely naked amongst other people, including men, but that’s a story for another time. In Japan, nudity amongst those of the same sex is not seen as perverse, sexual, or somehow “wrong”, it’s just as nature intended us to be, so there’s nothing to worry about. If you’re worried about being stared at, rest assured that no one cares that you are there or that you are naked, and you won’t be looked at, because everyone else will be too busy relaxing, and will likely have their eyes closed anyway as they soak and unwind. Just remember the pieces of onsen etiquette herein, and you’ll do just fine.
The photos in this post were taken at Ryokan Fujiya in Kurokawa Onsen, Japan inside the ryokans private family bathing area, where my husband and I were able to bathe together. Normally, photographs are never permitted inside onsen if other people are nearby, but we were given permission because we used the bath very early in the morning, no one else is allowed inside the private baths besides the family using it, thus no one else was around. I hope these photos help you get an idea of what to expect when visiting an onsen, and although each one looks totally different, they all share the same basic characteristics outlined below.
What is an Onsen, and Why Do People Use Them?
An onsen is literally translated as “hot water spring”, and it is a bath that uses water heated from Japan’s bountiful geothermal hot springs. Sometimes outdoors in the open with incredible views or sometimes indoors if the hot spring water is pumped inside, onsen have healing, relaxation, and rejuvenating properties that have been used for centuries to relax and refresh oneself. Japan’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and associated increased tectonic and geothermal activity means that the nation has some of the world’s best hot springs. By creating manmade hot spring-fed baths, the Japanese people have simply improved upon what nature has given them.
Some places, like Kurokawa Onsen or Ginzan Onsen, both in the mountains, are entire towns devoted to hot spring enjoyment. We spent almost an entire day traveling up the mountain by bus, train, and car to get to Kurokawa Onsen, but it was absolutely worth it to soak in the indoor and outdoor hot springs dotting the mountainside. Sometimes onsen are stone baths surrounded by stone lanterns, lots of plants and moss that thrive in humid, wet conditions around the edge, and decorative stones, or other times they are made from cedar wood and sit as free standing bath tubs. The variety of what an onsen might look like depends upon where the onsen is located and the area’s associated traditions, as well as the preferences of those who own them. Google “onsen baths” to see some of the incredible variety of these baths.
Who Shouldn’t Use Onsen
Those with tattoos will likely not be allowed to use onsen. All public onsen, with the exception of a couple of public bathing spaces in Tokyo and onsen specifically for those with ink, prohibit any visible tattoos. This is because tattoos are associated with Japanese criminal groups, the Yakuza, who were traditionally punished and cast out of polite society by being forcibly tattooed to mark them as criminals and untrustworthy people. In modern times, members of this group elect to wear tattoos to showcase their status as being “outside” of traditional Japanese society, and even foreigners with tattoos, who may not even be aware of the Yakuza at all and certainly aren’t associated with them, are not permitted inside baths. With that said, if you have tattoos that are small and can be covered by waterproof makeup or bandages, as long as no one sees them, you will be permitted inside the baths. If your tattoos are too large to be covered, some facilities can be booked for private use, where no one will give you trouble about your tattoos.
Anyone who is menstruating is expected to avoid using public baths, even with tampons, for public health reasons. If you find yourself in Japan and on your period, see if you’re able to arrange a private bath, or simply enjoy a longer shower to unwind. If you are ill with a cold, fever, or any other communicable disease, stay in your room and do not risk spreading illnesses via the baths. Japanese people, in general, very much value communities over their own selves, and it is expected that they will protect one another from getting sick by self-regulating and avoiding communal spaces like baths when ill or when they could potentially make someone sick in other ways, even if it means forgoing a dip in the hot springs.
While small bandages are used to cover small tattoos, those who have actual open wounds, scrapes, or burns should not use onsen baths, as it can not only pose a health risk for others, but open wounds may become infected or irritated by the properties and minerals within onsen waters. Some onsen are health spas specifically for those who are unwell or injured, but these are very specific places that need to be sought out for healing, and one should not assume that just because onsen waters are believed to have superior healing qualities, that they are welcome to use just any onsen when sick or injured.
Babies, toddlers and anyone who uses diapers are not permitted inside onsen, even with waterproof diapers or swimming diapers. Japanese people, like any sensible people, do not want anything unsightly or unsanitary in the waters with them when they are relaxing and bathing. Young children may be permitted to use the onsen so long as they are accompanied by an adult the entire time, do not splash anyone (this is extremely rude to do), are quiet, and are able to get out and use the restrooms that are always nearby, as needed. Children under the age of 7 or so are generally permitted to go with either parent inside onsen.
You will also likely see signs that state that anyone who even appears to be drunk or on drugs will not be permitted to enter the baths. Do not drink alcohol before going into the onsen, as it can cause you to become very sick, injure yourself, or be thrown out of the baths, which would be embarrassing for all involved. This is an experience best enjoyed totally sober.
How to Use an Onsen
There will be two sides to every onsen, a side for women, and a side for men, unless you are at a rare place where mixed bathing is permitted, or if you are using a family bath as we did in this example. The red curtain side will be where women go, and men will go the blue curtained side, and the sexes will not meet up until they are both done and exit the springs again. Some onsen switch sides depending upon the day of the week, because each side has different amenities, so both sexes can enjoy each side’s amenities. It is a criminal offense to enter the wrong curtain side, or to take photos or use a cell phone for any reason within changing rooms or onsen, and you will be arrested for doing so.
Shower first, sitting on a stool or kneeling on the ground so as not to splash anyone else, and be sure to wash as you normally would, including washing your hair, as this is the “cleaning” phase of onsen bathing. Relaxing in hot springs is not meant as a way of getting clean, they are strictly meant for relaxation. Everyone washes themselves first, so as not to pollute the communal bathing water, and then heads to the baths to soak and unwind.
After bathing, tie up long hair and make sure hair never touches the water. Not only can mineral rich hot spring waters make your hair stiff and dry, but no one wants hair, even if it’s been freshly washed, in their hot spring water, floating around them. For the same reason, do not submerge your head below the water. At best, it can dirty the water by introducing hairs into it, and at worst, the hot water can cause a person to pass out and potentially drown, so keep your head above water at all times.
Before entering the onsen, find a small bucket out near the onsen and acclimate yourself to the water. Generally, you will scoop up a few small bucket fulls of water to do so. Start by pouring the hot water on your feet and ankles, then onto your knees, then from the ribs down, and lastly your shoulders and down. This will help your body adjust to the water’s hot temperature quickly.
When you enter the onsen, bring a small towel with you. These are usually offered as part of onsen admission rates, or can be rented for a few hundred yen, the equivalent of a few US dollars. This towel will be used to dry off before heading back inside so that you don’t track in too much water, and can be used to cover yourself when entering and exiting the water. Never put these towels in the water. You can either fold up and balance the towel on your head to keep track of it (soak it in cool water, if available, before placing it on your head to help prevent you from feeling dizzy from the hot water), or leave it at the edge of the water, neatly folded, and out of everyone’s way.
Once you are in the water, sit quietly and relax. Generally, people do not talk much in the onsen, and if they do it is very, very quietly so as not to disturb others, although sometimes people will talk a bit louder than in other places, so do as the locals are doing. This is a time to reflect on your journey so far, relax completely, and ease tired muscles. Even if you are with others, I recommend not talking, unless there is no one else around, and even then, keep your voices low. We visited more than a dozen different onsen during our six weeks in Japan, and I never really heard anyone talking, except when agreeing to leave, telling someone they needed to run to the toilet quickly, or agreeing to take a water or Yakult break (Yakult are a fermented probiotic yogurt drink popular in Japan). People are here to relax and unwind, so always be respectful of that.
If there are multiple baths or pools of water, feel free to take a dip in each bath to figure out which one you like the best. Sometimes you’re able to add more hot water via a pump or faucet if you’re in a freestanding bath, so you’re able to more easily control the temperature.
When you’re done soaking in the onsen waters, make sure to gather up anything you brought with you, like a cup of water (if you’re at an onsen that allows that), and your small towel. Be sure to stand up slowly and gradually if you’re prone to getting dizzy, or if you’ve been in the water for awhile. Dry off as much as you can so you don’t track water back into the changing room. Sometime, there are saunas, stretching areas, or other spa services that can be booked ahead of time, and sometimes the hot springs are the only feature. If you’re using a sauna and then heading back into the onsen, you will need to shower off again to get clean again after sweating. When you’re ready to leave, use a large towel, either bring your own, rent one, or use the included towel, and get dressed.
I loved taking some time to workout before going to the hot springs to shower, stretch, and then soak in the onsen. Every onsen I visited had scales, hair dryers, disposable combs and brushes, and even hot tools for hair styling, though I always brought my own to freshen up after bathing and soaking. It just felt so amazing to know that I’d earned a nice, long, hot soak. I also loved stretching again once we returned to our rooms, because the hot water did wonders to loosen up my muscles.
To summarize, below are the basic steps of using an onsen in Japan
- Shower & wash hair & body thoroughly
- Tie up hair to keep it out of the water
- Bring only a small towel with you to the onsen
- Acclimate your body with small bucketfuls of water
- Enter the hot spring
- Soak & Relax for as long as you’d like
- Exit the hot spring and dry off with small towel
- Head back to changing room and get dressed
After exiting the onsen, be sure to drink plenty of water, as you may have become dehydrated in the process. With a little bit of planning, you can make a fantastic spa experience out of onsen bathing, by exfoliating and showering before entering the baths, soaking in the hot springs and benefitting from their healing properties and skin softening qualities, then by rinsing off in cool water after the fact to tighten and tone skin, applying your skincare routine and pampering yourself afterward. It’s truly such a wonderful activity to participate in, and one that with a little research, planning, and courage, can be done perfectly by any visitors interested in participating in the beautiful Japanese culture.