What are onsens? Why should you try one?
Onsens refer to hotspring baths in Japan, with the water heated by geothermal energy. For centuries, the Japanese people have been going to onsens to relax and to reap the health benefits from the water. Can you believe there’ re more than 2,500 onsens in Japan? What’s stopping you from going! Ok seriously, there are plenty of different health benefits depending on the minerals inside the water, health benefits ranging from soothing back pain, helping lower blood pressure, beautifying the skin, healing eyes, and so on.
Hotsprings differ by the type and category of the water, so you get sulphur hotsprings, alkaline soda hotsprings, hydrogen carbonate hotsprings, iron ones, chloride ones, etc. Due to the minerals, the onsen water can come in different colors. Don’t be surprised if it’s not transparent! I once soaked in a milky-colored onsen pool in Tokyo.
After than the health benefits, hotsprings are frequently found in natural places such as among mountains, which make the onsen experiences ever more lovely. Japan delivers amazingly beautiful seasons in a year, including the cherry blossom season, leaves turning red for autumn, or winter wonderlands. Soaking in the onsen during different seasons promises starkingly different experiences.
Disclaimer: I have only been to two different onsens in Japan. One was a public onsen facility in Tokyo, while another was a high-end onsen ryokan in Kyoto (which I’d featured in these blogposts here and the experience). This blogpost is constructed from my own experiences as well as from research online.
Choosing the onsen:
Bathhouse or Onsen Ryokan?
There are purely onsen bathhouses where the public can visit for a soak. Most of these are gender-specific, communal onsen baths. Some facilities provide private baths – you pay a fee to use a small tub or a pool in private.
Ryokan refers to a type of traditional Japanese accommodation, where you can stay overnight as a guest. At traditional ryokans, tatami floorings and futon beds are the norm. At an onsen ryokan, onsen baths are available for guests (some onsen ryokan will also open up onsen facilities to daytime public visitors) to enjoy. In some ryokans, there are also private pools or tubs, sometimes even inside the guest’s ryokan unit. I stayed in one before where there was a bathtub in the bathroom, with taps that’ll dispense hotspring water (though it’s not the one in the photo below)!
Note: NOT all ryokans will have onsen facilities. If a ryokan has them, it will be stated.
To go naked or not to go naked?
Onsen means you’ll be in the onsen baths fully naked. At first, I thought I’ll be really uncomfortable. However, once you overcome that first mental hurdle, you’ll feel a certain kind of liberation. After all, the naked people you see are the same gender as you.
A few rather important questions ..
Do you have a tattoo?
People who have tattoos are generally prohibited from using onsen baths, even if you’re a foreigner. One reason for this ban is the historical association that tattoo implies gangsters (yakuza). So, if you have a tattoo and patronize the onsen, customers will avoid going to that onsen. There are also various cultural reasons why onsen places ban tattooed visitors.
To get around this issue, you may try to use waterproof, skin-colored bandages to cover your tattoo. Or, get a private onsen. Whether these methods work or not depends on your luck and how strict the onsen facility is, so please respect their rules and don’t take my word blindly!
Are there kids with you?
Children wearing diapers are not allowed. If they’re very young and not toilet-trained, they will also be prohibited from using the onsen baths for obvious reasons. Also, kids aged ten years and older will have to go to gender-specific baths, that means a 10-year-old boy cannot go to the female onsen with his mum.
Arriving at the onsen
Remove your shoes at the entrance and store your shoes in lockers.
Pay for your admission. Make sure you have a body towel, either brought by yourself or rented from / provided by the onsen facility. You should also get a modesty towel, which is a towel that’s smaller than a body towel. Check with the onsen place about amenities before arriving, so you’ll know whether you have to bring.
Please, respect other people’s privacy. You don’t have to take photos of you being in the onsen just so you could post it to social media.
The Beginner’s Guide on
How to Use Onsen in Japan!
Wear your yukata.
If you’re an onsen ryokan guest, the ryokan will provide a Japanese robe known as a yukata for you to wear. Make sure you wrap it left flap over the right, ‘cos the opposite is how the Japanese dress dead people for funerals!
In my photo, the maroon outerpiece was a bonus piece because it was winter #ThoughtfulnessOfJapanese
Step 2: Go to onsen area
Make sure you enter the correct onsen section!
Ladies, don’t enter the men’s area, and vice versa. The entry points are likely marked by traditional half-curtains. Red/pink for ladies, blue/green for men.
Step 3: Go to the changing area.
Remove your clothes.
Store/stow your clothings & belongings.
Store your valuables in lockers. Remove all your clothings/yukata and put them into the locker or a basket. Your locker key will likely be attached to a rubber band to wear around your wrist, which you can bring into the onsen bath. You may bring your modesty towel with you.
Step 4: Wash yourself clean!
You need to wash yourself first BEFORE entering the bath. There’ll be a communal washing area near the onsen, which looks similar to the photo above. Use the showerhead and clean the stool and wooden scoop, then sit on the stool, and start washing yourself. Be mindful that you don’t spray water all over your neighbours! Make sure you remove all soap and grime from your body. After you’re done, spray the stool and scoop clean so that someone else can use your spot.
About the full process of washing-soaking, there are 2 ‘schools of thought’ about it. I prefer to do it as per Process A!
- At the washing area, clean and scrub your entire body thoroughly with soap, wash your hair with shampoo, face with cleanser (if available) at the washing area. You can use the modesty towel as a scrub-cloth too. Afterwards, for ladies, it’ll be especially considerate of you to tie your hair up and secure with hairpins, so that loose hair strands will not drop into the onsen bath.
- Enter onsen bath.
- Soak and relaxxxx.
- At the washing area, rinse yourself with water.
- Enter the onsen bath. Relax and soak for a short while.
- Get out of the bath. Go to washing area again and thoroughly scrub yourself with soap and rinse off.
- Enter onsen bath again.
- Soak and relaxxxx.
Step 5: Enter onsen bath.
Leave your bath towel either in the basket earlier or somewhere you could access it after leaving the bath. If you feel conscious being exposed while walking between different onsen pools, use the modesty towel to cover private parts.
When you’re going into the onsen, either set the modesty towel on a rock or beside the bath, outside the bath, or put it on top of your head. That modesty towel should not touch the water!
Enter onsen bath gradually as the water is hot (usually 30-60°C).
Step 6: Soakkkkk inside the onsen bath.
Soak your body up to your neck/shoulders and relax. How long should one be soaking? I like to soak until I feel as if I’m sweating inside the water. That will be about 10–20 minutes I guess? You can’t soak for too long, because you’ll feel very lethargic and drowsy as your muscles begin to relax. I felt like I was on drugs or strong medicine, hehe. Some onsen places have more than one onsen pool, so you can go to different ones and soak for a short while before moving on to the next. Onsen-hopping, ha!
- Don’t wear anything into the bath.
- Don’t jump into the bath. Please don’t swim inside the bath. Avoid making big movements!
- Face should not touch the water.
- Modesty towel must not touch the water. Leave it outside the bath or balance it on you head.
- Don’t wring your towel’s water into the onsen bath. Wring it outside the onsen bath, into the drain.
- It’s rude to stare.
- Don’t talk too loudly. People are here to relax and unwind.
- Don’t bring soap or shampoo or anything else.
- No eating & drinking inside the onsen bath.
Step 7: Leave the bath
I noticed a separate tub of hotspring water outside the onsen baths when I was at different onsen facilities, but can’t seem to find info on it. I believe it’s for rinsing your body with super-clean, super-fresh hotspring water after you leave the onsen bath, although someone told me it might be for you to try out and get used to the temperature before you enter the onsen. If you know, please tell me!
Step 8: Dry off before entering changing area.
Towel-dry excess water from your body before stepping into the changing area, so you won’t be making the floor wet and dangerous. Then, put on your clothes or yukata, use the hairdryer etc if you need, drop your towels if they belong to the onsen place, and you’re done!
After the onsen
Stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, and avoid excessive use of energy. You’ll have a good sleep!
• Cover photo of Akita onsen, + snowcapped outdoor onsen: taken by Fumiaki Yoshimatsu, obtained via Flickr (1, 2), further editted by me
• Outdoor onsen with autumn foliage: taken by Isriya Paireepairit, obtained via Flickr, further editted by me
• Private bathtub overlooking Mount Fuji: taken by Chris Robinson, obtained via Flickr
• Photo of lady in private bath + communal bath area photo: taken by Japanexperterna, obtained via Flickr (1, 2), further editted by me.
• Photo of ryokan with seats and sofa, + photo of myself in yukata, belong to me.
• Illustrated guide is cropped visual from Yumotokan’s website. Yumotokan was the onsen ryokan I went in Kyoto.
• All other images are photos of Yumotokan via screenshots accessed from Google 360 cameras.
All Flickr photos are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Further information sources: Japan Magazine • Onsen Japan
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