Onsen are communal baths filled with water from the many hot springs found across the volcanic island of Japan. Experiencing an onsen is a highlight of a visit to Japan, but it is also an activity which causes angst for many visitors who are not quite sure what to expect. It’s worth doing some pre-trip reading about the correct onsen etiquette and then throwing caution to the wind. Plunge in for an unforgettable experience.
What is an onsen?
Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese word for geothermally heated springs. As Japan is a volcanically active country, there is no shortage of water heated under the ground, which either appears naturally at the surface, or can be pumped from not far underground. Traditionally, onsen were used as day-to-day public bathing places, and now they are a tourism drawcard to locations for both domestic and international visitors.
There’s various types of onsen – both indoor and outdoor, in a multitude of shapes, sizes and settings. Some are open to the public, others are run as part of a hotel or ryokan (like the one at Fukuzumiro). Most are segregated, but some are mixed-sex.
Within the Japanese culture, the term hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion) is used to describe the concept of people – family groups, friends, colleagues – washing away the concerns of day-to-day life and literally stripping down to naked conversation. It’s a totally alien concept to many visitors to Japan who would sooner walk over hot coals than bathe naked with their boss.
Our experience of onsen was limited to ones in ryokan or hotels. And even in those relatively quiet environments, I was extremely nervous about what exactly to expect. So below I’ve put together a guide on what I learned about using onsen. I may well have got bits wrong…so if you have anything to add or correct, I’d love to hear feedback on it.
Some onsen have lockers, others don’t. So don’t go wearing your best jewelry as you may be leaving it in a basket in the change rooms (where it would probably be quite safe…but why take the risk?) All the onsen we visited all had signs warning that the water could affect metal jewelry.
As we were staying on the premises of the onsen we visited, we wore yukata and slippers to and from (but remembered to remove our slippers as soon as we hit the tatami mat flooring of the onsen). These onsen all had soap, shampoo, conditioner, washcloths and towels provided, but I noticed one other guest brought her own supplies with her and used those. I believe that at some establishments you’ll pay a small charge for towels, washcloths and soap/shampoo etc.
If you have any visible tattoos, you will probably not be permitted into an onsen. Tattoos are uncommon in Japan, and in the past if Japanese people did have tattoos, it was an indication of yakusa (mafia) or gangster links, so those people were banned from the premises. If you have small tattoos you may be able to cover them up with a waterproof bandage, but it’s up to the onsen whether they will let you in.
Bringing a bottle of drinking water to leave in the basket with your clothes is also a great idea, in case you can’t find any water around the change rooms.
Choose the right changing room.
At some onsen, the men’s and women’s sections swap at a certain time each day, in order that guests can experience different pools at that onsen. So, it’s really important to check the changing room signage carefully. It’s not just embarrassing to walk into the wrong one, it’s a major breach of etiquette. The entrance to female change rooms has red curtains and you’ll often see the kanji for woman ( 女 ) on the curtains or nearby. The entrance to male change rooms has blue curtains (and 男). I remembered the difference between the kanji by thinking that women sit cross-legged and men have box heads. It is a ridiculous mental image, but it worked.
Remove all clothing.
And when they say all, they really mean ALL. The signage makes it quite clear that no clothing is permitted inside the onsen. (There are some exceptions to the remove all clothing, such as a swimsuit onsen like Yunessan at Hakone, or the occasional mixed-sex rotenburo which may allow towels or gowns.) Depending on the onsen, there may be an outer change room with lockers, which is where you change out of street clothes into yukata and slippers, then an interior change room with shelving containing a series of baskets which is where you remove the yukata. Or you may go straight into the interior change room.
You remove all your clothing, then put it into a basket along with your large towel, and you collect a small washcloth/towel.
That small towel is all that stands between you and stark nudity.
The size of the small washcloth/towel varies from 20cm by 20cm to around the size of a tea-towel (but more elongated). The towel is used inside the onsen as a washcloth and can be held in front of you for modesty as you move about. It is not permitted to touch the water of the onsen itself (see below). You can buy these washcloths at many gift/souvenir shops and they make a great memento of your trip.
This towel is the only thing you are permitted to carry into the pool area itself.
First – wash yourself.
The onsen baths are for soaking only, not cleaning. It is imperative that you wash well before lowering into the hot spring water. As you enter, you’ll see an area to wash and rinse. This could be a separate space with rows of showers and stools, sometimes separated by privacy dividers or, like in the photo above, it could be in the corners of the same room as the onsen pool. There will be teeny-tiny stools, a handheld shower and/or a small bucket to fill with water to rinse, and toiletry supplies (or bring your own). You must sit on a stool to scrub, lather and rinse until every inch of you is sparkling clean – do not stand, this is considered very bad form. I’m not sure if it is compulsory to wash your hair, but everyone else I saw seemed to be doing so, and mimicking what others are doing is the safest approach when you’re not certain of the rules. Once you’ve washed, women with long hair should put it up with a hair tie. Plus you should rinse off the washing area ready for the next visitor and replace items to where you found them. Only then, can you approach the onsen pool.
Take the plunge.
If your washcloth is soapy from your scrubbing, it must be rinsed and wrung out well at the showering area. Then it can be used for a modicum of modesty to walk towards the onsen itself (but most Japanese don’t seem to bother with that). Once you get to the pool however, the towel needs to either go on your head (folded into a small rectangle) or be left on the edge, a nearby rock or a shelf. It must NEVER be put into the hot spring water. If it does inadvertently fall into the water, wring it out away from the pool.
The water may be very hot. Test it out with your foot before lowering yourself in. Then just ease into the water, sit and relax. Do not swim. Do not put your head under the water. If you’re with family or friends, chat away…especially if there’s an awkwardness about bathing naked together. Quiet conversation is what onsen are all about.
Don’t overdo it.
Apparently, it’s relatively common for non-Japanese visitors to faint from the heat of the onsen waters, partly because they feel awkward about sitting up on the edge of the pool for a while to cool down and regulate their body temperature. You can get in and out of onsen pools as much as you like. And you can use the showers to cool down. The heat can be quite dehydrating, so remember to drink lots of water before hand, and it’s probably not a great idea to visit an onsen after drinking alcohol.
I found ten minutes in a pool at a time was more than enough.
Make a graceful exit.
Once you’ve had enough, exit the pool but don’t drip a path towards the change rooms. Wipe off as much of the excess water from your body as you can with your small towel before leaving the pool area. In order to absorb the benefit of the mineral composition of the water, showering or washing immediately afterwards is generally not recommended. If there is drinking water available in the change rooms, now would be a good time to top up on a bit of hydration.
Not all onsen are the same.
There can be small differences in the rules and procedures from one onsen to the next. There’s usually signage explaining the rules and arrangements, but not always in English and not always as comprehensive as a nervous newbie would like. The best thing to do is to watch what other people do (but not in a creepy, stalkerish kind of way…) and just do the same.
There’s no way I’m getting naked in public, can I wear my swimsuit?
Ummmm, no…unless it is a swimsuit onsen (such as Yunessun at Hakone). Allowing cloth into the pool is seen as dirtying the water.
Some onsen do, however, have private rooms that you can book in advance (usually for an extra fee). The process is essentially same: you’ll still wash beforehand, and you’ll still be naked, but you’ll do it all in a room with a lockable door. Or some hotels (such as Fujiya Hotel at Hakone) pump hot spring water into the bathrooms of the hotel rooms. Fill the bath and you have your own private onsen.
It’s really not the same though. The reason the onsen experience is so memorable is because it forces you to challenge your own cultural beliefs about communal nudity and embrace the concept of hadaka no tsukiai. After that first time when you nervously gulp, strip off your clothing, and walk through the entrance, you realize that no-one else in there is paying the slightest bit of attention to you or your body. And once you’re up to your neck in the hot water, there’s really not much to see anyway.
So, what do you think? Are you up for the onsen experience?
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