What is onsen? Why should you try one?
Onsen is a traditional Japanese bath of hot spring water, very popular 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. There are more than 2,500 onsens in Japan!
Hotsprings differ by the type and category of the spring 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.
There are plenty of different health benefits depending on the minerals inside the water, including helping to soothe back pain, lower blood pressure, beautify skin, heal eyes, and so on.
Hot springs are frequently found in natural, even mountaineous places, 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 in November, or winter wonderlands. Soaking in the onsen during different seasons promises strikingly different experiences.
It would be a pity if you visit Japan without soaking in an onsen.
I’ve been to three different onsens in Japan. One was a public onsen facility in Tokyo, another was a high-end onsen ryokan in Kyoto (which I’d featured in these blogposts here and the experience), and another onsen hotel at Fuji-Kawaguchi. This article is constructed entirely from my own experiences as well as from research online.
Choose the Onsen:
Japanese Bath House or Onsen Ryokan?
There are purely onsen bathhouses where the public can visit for a soak. Most of these are gender-separated, communal onsen baths. Some facilities provide private baths – you pay a fee to use a small tub or a pool in private.
Ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese accommodation, where you can stay overnight just like a hotel guest. At traditional ryokans, tatami floorings and futon beds are the usual decoration, and they look very charming and photogenic for Instagram actually!
At an onsen ryokan / ryokan onsen, onsen baths are available for guests to enjoy. Some ryokans will also open up their onsen facilities to public visitors in the daytime.
In some ryokans, there might also be private pools or tubs, sometimes even inside the guest’s ryokan unit. I stayed in one before where there was a bathtub in my bathroom (Yumotokan ryokan hotel), with taps that’ll dispense hot spring water (though it’s not the one in the photo below)!
NOT all ryokans will have onsen facilities. If a ryokan has them, it will be stated.
A Japanese hot spring bath requires you to be fully 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 …
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, which is a common reason why many onsen places ban visitors with tattoos.
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! Another option is to search for tattoo-friendly onsen in Japan, good luck!
Children wearing diapers are not allowed, not even swimming diapers please. If the children are very young and not toilet-trained, they will be prohibited from using the onsen baths for obvious reasons. Kids aged ten and above will have to go to gender-specific baths, that means a 10-year-old boy cannot go to the female onsen with his mum.
Also, people visit the onsen to relax and unwind, so it’s good manners to ensure your kids will not be rowdy or loud or playing in any sort of manner at the onsen.
Arriving at the onsen facility
Remove your shoes at the entrance and store your shoes in lockers.
Pay for your admission. Make sure you have a bath 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.
Obvious rule: No photography in onsens!
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 on social media.
Japanese Onsen Etiquette
- Don’t wear anything into the bath, including jewellery.
- Don’t jump into the bath. Please don’t swim inside the bath. Avoid making big movements.
- Face and hair should not touch the water.
- Face/Modesty towel must not touch the water. Leave it outside the bath or balance it on your 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 and not listen to your conversations.
- Don’t bring soap or shampoo or anything else into the onsen bath.
- No eating & drinking inside the onsen bath.
- Please don’t pee into the bath.
The Beginner’s Guide on
How to Use Onsen in Japan!
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 outer piece 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 at the entrance. Usually, red/pink curtains are for ladies, blue/green curtains indicate men’s bath.
Step 3: Go to the changing area.
Remove your clothes.
Store/stow your clothings & belongings.
Store your valuables in lockers, or leave them at your ryokan room. Remove all your clothings/yukata and put them into the locker. If lockers are not available, you’ll very likely find baskets to contain your belongings.
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 first!
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 spray 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 personally prefer Process A!
Bathing Process A:
- At the washing area, clean and scrub your entire body thoroughly with soap, wash your hair (if you prefer) with shampoo, face with cleanser (if preferred and is 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 touch the water inside the onsen bath.
- Enter onsen bath.
- Soak and relaxxxx.
Step 5: Enter onsen bath.
You would have left your bath towel at the basket earlier. If you hadn’t, put the bath towel somewhere you could access after leaving the bath. If you feel conscious being exposed while walking between different onsen pools, use the modesty towel to discreetly cover private parts.
When you’re going into the onsen, either set the modesty towel on a rock or beside the bath outside of the bath, or put it on top of your head. That modesty towel should never touch the water!
Enter onsen bath gradually as the water is hot (usually 30-60°C). Draw as little attention to yourself as necessary.
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!
Step 7: Leave the bath
At some onsen places, I noticed a separate tub of hotspring water outside the onsen baths. But I can’t seem to find info about this. 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!
You can return to the same communal area again to give yourself a fresh rinse, or wash with soap and shampoo as a final shower for the rest of your day. Some people don’t like to rinse again after having soaked in the onsen, so that the minerals will stay on their body. The Cleanliness freak in me cannot accept this, so I personally prefer to take a rinse and maybe even a full shower in my room afterwards.
Step 8: Dry off before entering dressing area.
Try to towel-dry excess water from your body with the modesty towel or your bath towel if available, before stepping into the dressing area. This is a precautionary step though, as the changing area’s floor should have certain floor material that will quickly absorb water and not be slippery.
Put on your clothes or yukata, use the hairdryer etc if you need, put on makeup if you need. Drop your towels into specified areas if the towels belong to the onsen place, and you’re done!
When in doubt, follow what others do!
After the onsen
Stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, and avoid excessive use of energy. You’ll have a good sleep!
Hope this guide is useful to you!
Posts from Japan!
• Hiking Mt Takao in Tokyo
• 15 reasons Tokyo is perfect for solo travel
• Tokyo for the first time? Here’s where to go!
• Tokyo’s cutest festival: Shichi Go San!
• Checking in Tokyo: Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku Hotel
• Checking in Kyoto: Yumotokan onsen ryokan hotel
• Seeing a geisha finally in Kyoto
Follow my footsteps on social media!
• Snowcapped outdoor onsen: taken by Fumiaki Yoshimatsu, obtained via Flickr (1, 2), licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, further editted by me.
• Outdoor onsen with autumn foliage: taken by Isriya Paireepairit, obtained via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, 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
• Cover photo (also Pinterest pin image) taken by 663highland, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, obtained via Wikipedia
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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