Bathing in one of Japan’s numerous onsen (hot springs) is one of the great local pastimes. I can truly think of no better way to relax and soak away stress that accumulates at work and in life. Unfortunately for travelers though, onsen also come with a lot of rules that can make for a bit of a challenge. Of course, this means the first time trip to an onsen can be the source of potential awkwardness. To help you avoid any missteps, I’ve put together this comprehensive guide.
For starters, let’s first examine what an onsen actually is. The term refers to any bath where there is water sourced from a natural hot spring. You can thank Japan’s abundant seismic activity and volcanoes for the wide variety of onsen nationwide. Onsen are typically public baths and in most cases, men and women are separated (though there are still a few mixed-gender ones out there). Some hotels also offer private onsen for couples, friends, and families who would like to bath together.
You can find an onsen on a map by looking for the ♨ symbol. Note that Japan is also home to what are called sento. In many cases, the only major difference between a sento and an onsen is that the former heats its own water whereas onsen are naturally heated. Given their functional similarity though, generally the same rules apply to both sento and onsen with only a few minor exceptions.
Initial Onsen Preparations
First off, you’re going to need to prepare mentally. You will be fully nude for most of the experience but so will everybody else. Don’t worry about people staring at your dangly bits. Everyone will be too busy enjoying the onsen to really care. Similarly, you need not concern yourself with being in the best physical shape. After all, most of your fellow bathers aren’t going to have “perfect” bodies either!
When it comes to hygiene, you should know that Japanese have a reputation for removing body hair. Yet, many do not shave or wax “down there.” You will notice this as soon as you step into the onsen’s changing area. If you are one to trim the bushes, you may encounter some glances and maybe even a few curious questions or comments. Just remember that everyone will forget about it once you are all soaking in the bath.
Do you have tattoos? If so, you’re going to do some research. Most onsen forbid tattoos completely while others allow them. To make things even more confusing, some ban tattoos in general, but make exceptions for small ones. Check with the onsen(s) you plan to visit first! Roughly a third of all recognized onsen in Japan do not restrict tattoos at all so don’t get discouraged. There are definitely options out there for you!
When it comes to what to bring to the onsen, be sure to pack your your own toiletries if possible. Most onsen have some available, but the quality can vary. If you are rocking longer hair, you will want to have some hair ties ready to keep your hair out of the bath. Lastly, you will need to bring two towels or be prepared to rent/buy them. Almost all onsen have rental towels available. You will need one large bath towel and one smaller towel.
Optional: Bring an akasuri towel. These are rough towels used to scrape dead skin off. They are available for purchase at many onsen and sento. They’re usually made of nylon or rough fabric.
Onsen Health Check
Make sure your physical condition is suitable for onsen and DO NOT show up drunk. Many onsen serve alcoholic drinks, but it’s best to wait until after your bath. Also, avoid entering an onsen if you are at very high risk for heart disease or are undergoing cancer treatment.
Additionally, while this should be common sense, for the sake of everyone at the onsen, let me state this very clearly: Do not go if you have any blood, pus, sores, or other bodily fluids that you cannot control. Do not go if you have an infectious disease or virus. Please, don’t ruin it for your fellow bathers!
For the ladies out there, I’m told that there are some other concerns you’ll need to keep in mind. Seeing I represent the male species here, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But, have no fear, a longtime female friend has shared the following info with us.
For women, take caution during your menstrual cycle. Some women experience dizziness if they use onsen during the heavier parts of their cycle. There are is also the risk of water entering the cervical opening. As this is shared bathwater, and sometimes chemically treated, this can pose a health risk. Doctors do not recommend using onsen at all while menstruating. But, if you absolutely cannot avoid it, use a tampon. Even if it’s a “light” day, nobody wants blood or bodily fluids floating around in the shared bath water. Using a tampon will also help protect against water entering through your cervical opening.
For similar reasons, women who have recently given birth should not use onsen either. Wait at least 6 weeks to avoid the risk of infection. Women who have suffered a recent miscarriage should consult with their doctor first. Pregnant women, however, should have no major problems. Previously, guidelines for onsen had pregnant women listed as unfit for using the hot baths. Recent research showed no ill effects on unborn babies or expectant mothers. Friendly warning…Take extra caution on the slippery floors if pregnancy makes you feel unbalanced or dizzy. Otherwise, relax and soak up the steamy bath with everyone else.
How to Enjoy an Onsen
Go to the entrance of the onsen of your choice. You will most likely need to remove your shoes at this point. There will be plenty of shoe lockers available and they are usually free. Take your key with you and don’t lose it. If you are staying at a hotel or ryokan with an onsen, you will not need to buy a ticket to enter. The hotel or ryokan will also provide you with a yukata to wear.
Some onsen have a ticket machine, others have a payment counter only. If you cannot read the ticket machine, ask the entrance staff for help. You will need to buy an entrance ticket for the onsen. If you did not bring towels, you can get a ticket to buy or rent a towel here as well. You can rent yukata for lounging around at many onsen. Some onsen even sell yukata for purchase.
Once you buy the tickets you need, exchange them at the front desk. You will be given a locker key when you exchange your entrance ticket. If you have towel, toiletry, or yukata tickets, you will receive those items as well. Next, follow the directions to the gender-appropriate area.
You’ll first find a changing room with lockers. Take off all of your clothes and place them, along with your belongings, in the locker. DO NOT use your phone or camera in the locker room or bathing area unless you want to visit a Japanese jail cell. Keep only your small towel, hair tie, and toiletries with you. Do not wear a swimsuit or any other clothing.
Now that you have stripped down to your birthday suit, it’s time to enter the bathing area. If you are thinking you might need to use the toilet, please do that first. In most onsen, you will see rows of showers along the sides, wooden or plastic seats and buckets, and a number of indoor and outdoor baths. Some very simple onsen have only 1 or 2 baths, while some larger ones will have over 5 baths and a sauna.
The baths will look enticing, but don’t enter them without cleaning yourself first. Bathing is first and foremost a relaxing endeavor in Japan so people cleanse themselves first. Remember, this water is shared with others. It’s important to be as clean as possible before entering.
First, pull up a bucket and a stool and park yourself at one of the empty showers. Now, thoroughly wash yourself head-to-toe. This means shampooing, lathering up your whole body with soap, and giving yourself a good scrub. Use your small towel to help scrub your body clean. Don’t miss any spots, and make sure to rinse off completely. Some onsen ban certain types of body scrubs. If you have brought your own body scrub, check if it’s OK first.
After you shower, rinse off your stool and shower area. Make sure to rinse your towel clean as well. Return any shampoo, soap, or other amenities to their places. If you brought your own items, there will be baskets or buckets that you can keep them in. If you have long hair, tie it up into a bun or high ponytail. Your hair should never touch the water in the bath.
Soaking in a Japanese Onsen
Now you’re finally set to head for the baths! Some bathers casually hold their small towel in front of their crotch area for modesty purposes. Feel free to do this if you are shy but do note that there will be some who just show it all. Whatever you do, just remember that the towel should NEVER enter the bath itself. Once you’re in the bath, most people fold up their towels and place them on their heads while they bathe.
Onsen water can often be very hot. It’s best to take one of the buckets, collect some water from the bath, and pour it on yourself before entering. Just try not to make a big splash when you do this. At least pour some on your legs and feet first. You can also wet your small towel with the onsen water before entering. As mentioned above though, do not put the towel in the bath; use the bucket instead.
If you go to an onsen with multiple baths, give each one a try. Usually, the water properties are slightly different in each bath as are the temperatures. Some may have cloudy water, carbonated water, or alkaline water. You will need to spend at least a few minutes in the bath to really feel the difference. Some baths may be too hot for you to stay in for prolonged periods. There is no need to try to force yourself to stay in. If it gets too hot, you can change to another bath, or sit on the side with your feet and legs in.
You may also encounter a cold water bath called “mizu-buro.” This can be quite a challenge for most to enter. It’s best to use these right after using the sauna, but do not feel bad if you cannot immerse your whole body. If you do manage to go all the way in, it is a very intense sensation. Your body starts to adjust to the cold temperature, but don’t stay in for too long. Upon exiting a cold bath, do not immediately enter a hot one. Instead, choose a mild-temperature bath and make sure to pour some bathwater over yourself before entering.
Many onsen have a sauna room but some sento have them too. Generally, there is no extra charge to use the sauna at an onsen but it usually costs extra at a sento. If you enter, do not stay in the room for longer than the recommended time. It’s also good manners to sit on top of your small towel. Sento and some onsen often have showers right outside of the sauna. This is for you to rinse the sweat off your body before re-entering the baths.
The length of time spent enjoying the onsen is entirely up to you. There is no need to rush. Likewise, there is no need to force yourself to soak for too long. If you’ve reserved a private bath, these sessions will have a time limit. Normal public onsen are only limited by their opening and closing hours. When you do decide to leave the bath, make sure you do not leave any belongings behind. If you have rented a towel, you will need to return it.
One question that many people have is whether or not to shower again upon leaving the onsen. There is not a clear-cut answer to this but both sides have their benefits. Some onsen waters have special properties that benefit the skin. This is why some people do not wish to wash off immediately afterwards. If your skin feels nice after the bath, you might want to skip the shower.
On the other hand, onsen is shared water and some people do not feel that it is truly clean. Also, certain onsen water types may be harsh on the skin if you do not wash them off. This is especially true about water with a very high or very low pH level. Finally, soaking in a bath loosens up dead skin. This makes it very easy to scrub off all that excess dead skin with an akasuri towel. Indeed, it is better for your skin’s health to do this after bathing rather than before bathing. Post-bath showering is much more common at sento, where the bath waters are not from natural springs.
When you leave the bath area, make sure to dry your body off as best as possible. There will be some seats with mirrors and hair dryers. It’s best if you have dried your body and put some clothes on before using these. At onsen the hair dryers are free of charge, at sento they are usually coin operated.
Once you are all dried and dressed, it’s time to hit the lounge area. These are typically located outside of the locker room and are not gender-segregated. At most onsen you will be able to purchase drinks from vending machines. While beer and sake are often available, the recommended post-onsen drink is fresh milk. It is sold in glass bottles which you should return after finishing for recycling. If you are feeling like a post-bath meal, some onsen also have restaurants which typically feature local delicacies or Japanese style course meals.
Other Misc. Onsen Advice
For transgender, intersex, and genderqueer individuals, things are unfortunately very difficult when it comes to onsen. Post-op transgender individuals should not encounter any concerns or problems. Yet, intersex, genderqueer, and pre-op transgender people will face significant barriers. The definition of gender separation for the onsen is based on what’s below the belt and not on an individual’s gender identity.
For now, this means there are only two main ways of getting into onsen. One is to rent a private onsen. If you are staying overnight at a hotel with onsen, this should be pretty straightforward. There are a limited number of day onsens that also rent out baths privately. Hakone Yuryo has private baths for rent that can be used by individuals or small groups.
Another option is to try co-ed onsen. Despite these being the traditional form of the bath, nowadays these mixed alternatives are few and far between. If you are fortunate enough to be staying within a reasonable distance of one, this will be a reliable option. Co-ed onsen are called konyoku in Japanese and there are still more than 80 co-ed onsen scattered across the country. You can find them listed here.
There is always one other possibility but this is not guaranteed to work. Simply find an onsen which is not popular and go early on a weekday. There’s a good chance there might not be other customers there so this could theoretically work out for you. Like I said though, Japan is still very much behind the times when it comes to Western perceptions of gender.
Finally before ending, those with kids should know that very young children may enter onsen with their parents even if they are the opposite gender. If you are bringing children, be sure to teach them proper etiquette. They should keep their voices down and not run or splash. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a little runt swimming about in the onsen while his/her parents enjoyed the nearby sauna. Note that children who are wearing diapers are usually not allowed to enter onsen or sento baths.