The combination of communal bathing and flat-out nudity make Japanese onsens one of the stranger experiences for many travellers visiting this wonderful country. These places are often far too easy to overlook and miss out on, due mainly to their birthday suit dress code. This is a shame because once you get past all of that, you will discover that onsens are supremely relaxing, not to mention the long list of health benefits of these public hot springs/baths.
I was just as confused as you probably are before I first went to Japan. If only I’d had a guide like this to make the whole “getting naked in front of strangers” thing a lot easier. Before we get into the rules and what you should bring, let’s start by going over what a Japanese onsen actually is.
What is a Japanese Hot Spring?
“Onsen” is the Japanese word for hot spring or bath house. These onsens are located all over Japan so you will have little trouble finding one as they are a huge part of Japanese culture. They are also meant to be great for both your mental and physical well-being.
There are two main types of Japanese onsens that you should be aware of. “Rotenburo” describes an outdoor onsen and “sento” refers to an indoor onsen (usually called a public bathhouse). Rotenburo onsens are widely considered to be the “superior” onsen, with the onsen being beautifully constructed in itself, coupled with the fact that they are often situated in an area of natural beauty. Just imagine the sheer spectacle of sitting in an outdoor hot spring, gazing out at the mountains or listening to rivers flow by in the distance. This is what you’ll be missing out on! On the other hand, sento onsens tend to be more common and are often used on a daily basis by regular Japanese people. This makes for a totally different experience as you’ll rarely find other “gaijin” (foreigners) there.
Whichever one you end up visiting on your trip (try them both), the rules and general etiquette are the same for each.
What to Bring to a Japanese Onsen
Some [high end] onsens provide you with just about everything you could possibly need, including shampoo, body soap, face wash, a razor and a towel. However, this will often cost you extra so you may be better to just bring your own stuff. This is what I choose to do. Here’s what’s on my list:
- Body soap
- Face Wash
- Two towels (one full body towel for after and a small face towel that I bring with me into the onsen)
- A razor (if I’m in need of a shave)
What to do in a Japanese Onsen
I imagine this is why you’re reading this. You don’t want to get to an onsen and then have no clue what you’re actually meant to do. Just follow these steps and you’ll be an onsen master in no time!
Step One: Get into Your Birthday Suit
By far the most daunting aspect of this entire process, so it’s good we’re getting this out of the way early! Unfortunately, there is no way around this so before you actually enter the onsen, you’re going to have to take everything off (yes, everything)!
Step Two: Wash Yourself
In all onsens, there will be washing stations set up out of the water. This is where you will clean yourself before entering the bath. Take one of the shower stools that will likely be provided for you, sit on it (don’t worry, they’re washed between uses!) and proceed to clean yourself with the stuff you brought with you.
You are not allowed to wash in the bath (we’ll come back to this later).
Step Three: Enter the Water
The third and final step. When entering the bath, be careful on the slippery surfaces. It could be quite embarrassing (and sore) to have a naked onsen tumble! Also, when you enter the water, do so with care. Don’t splash or disturb the other onsen-goers.
If you want to leave your small face towel at the side of the onsen, that’s completely fine but a lot of people choose to rest it on their heads. If you rinse it with cold water beforehand, this can be a great way to prevent you from overheating. What’s not okay is putting your towel in the water. You may see some people doing this but it is considered extremely rude.
Japanese Onsen Rules
Now that you have a general sense of what Japanese onsens are like and what you’re meant to do, let’s get into the specific rules.
No Swim Suits
Like I said, it’s birthday suits only. Not even bathing suits are allowed in an onsen. If you’re extra embarrassed (which you shouldn’t be) you can use the face towel to cover up some of yourself.
You must clean yourself before entering the water and it’s often a good idea to wash again when you’re done in order to rid yourself of sweat before entering the changing room.
For obvious reasons, you’re not allowed to take pictures in an onsen. No naked selfies!
These are not swimming pools. They’re for relaxing, not swimming. If you’re a parent, keep an eye on your kids to make sure they’re not annoying the other bathers.
No Washing in the Bath
Again, like I said before, there are designated washing stalls and shower stools for you to use before getting in the bath.
Tie Your Hair Up
I imagine this one mainly applies to the ladies. Remember to bring a hair band or something to tie your hair up to prevent it from getting in the water.
The “No Tattoo” Rule
Tattoos are not common in Japan. Anyone with a tattoo is considered to be connected to the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) or have some other criminal connection. As a result, Japanese culture is very much against tattoos and most onsens will not allow those with tattoos entry. This may seem unfair but, unfortunately, it’s a rule. If you only have one small tattoo, you’d probably get away with just covering it with a band-aid or something, but if you’ve got sleeves or other big tattoos, you’ll likely be refused entry.
Although everyone is naked and exposed, onsens can be quite a social place. As long as you’re not disturbing anyone or being overly loud, it’s perfectly okay to have a chat.
Don’t get drunk and go to an onsen! This is not a good idea. First of all, you wouldn’t be allowed in and second of all, the hot temperatures will not do a drunk person any good.
When it comes down to it, the main thing is to just be respectful of others. Don’t splash them or disturb them by being too noisy. Remember that onsens are places to relax. Also, be aware of your space and the space of others. This is vital when the onsen is busy. No one wants to be bumping into other naked bodies while they’re trying to relax!
Snow Monkey Hot Springs
If you’re looking for an extra special and unique onsen experience, head to one of the famous snow monkey onsens. Since these onsens are home to wild snow monkeys, you are not allowed to go in the water (I don’t know why you’d want some crazy, hairy bath buddies). However, this can be amazing to see and you’ll have no shortage of awesome photo and selfie opportunities!
Hopefully, this guide has helped not only convince you that Japanese onsens are worth visiting but also what to do when you are there; the etiquette and the rules to follow. No trip to Japan is truly complete without venturing to one of these unique, relaxing and truly special places.