Today we have a guest post from one of our intrepid team here at Japlanning, our American rep, Devon. Devon is here to give you the low down on how to go to a traditional Japanese Onsen: what to expect, and the right steps to follow so you can enjoy this ancient Japanese tradition on your next trip to Japan.
Take it from here Devon!
There is hardly anything more traditionally Japanese than the onsen! Onsens are technically the Japanese word for a hot spring, but can also be used to describe bath houses as well. They can either be indoor or outdoor and are often located at hotels or ryokans where you are able to spend the night. Due to Japan’s geothermal nature, onsens can be found all over the country. They have a high mineral content so are believed by many to have healing properties.
So you want to try an onsen, but are feeling intimidated?
Here’s how to onsen the proper way!
Nearly all onsens are enjoyed in the nude.
Storage areas are provided for your clothing and person effects, either
in the form of coin lockers or baskets.
With coin lockers you will get a key that you can wear around your wrist
while bathing. Leave all of your
garments and belongings in the storage area and head over to the shower
After you undress, you have to wash up! Everyone
is expected and required to wash before entering the bath. Bathing stations are located adjacent to the
baths and are equipped with stools, shower heads and usually toiletries for
washing, but feel free to bring your own along.
Remember to wash thoroughly before entering the bath and make sure to
rinse off completely as well!
Onsens can either be indoor or outdoor and can be one bath or many. A bath house can offer a variety of baths to
soak in, such as baths with waterfalls, cold water baths for stimulating the
nervous system, special themed baths (infused with fragrances like green tea,
honey or milk), okeburo (individual barrels filled with steaming water) and
even electric baths, a bath with electric current flowing through it to
stimulate the muscles. Some baths are
just for walking through, filled with smooth pebbles for relaxing your feet. Don’t
limit yourself to one bath! Feel free to
move around and try the different baths.
Remember that you are bathing in hot water and can get dizzy or lightheaded if
you stay in too long. Never submerge
completely or put your head under water.
Many onsens have cold water drinking fountains to rehydrate so take a
break every 15-20 minutes to have a cool drink.
There is no need to re-shower after the bath.
Just dry off and enjoy the effect of the onsen. All in all, expect to spend an hour or more bathing. Some bath houses will offer dining facilities
and many Japanese will enjoy a glass of milk or cider vinegar post-bath.
Smaller onsens may only have one bath available for both genders. In this instance, there will be designated times for both men and women to use the bath. To avoid any awkward situations, make sure you pay attention to the times listed.
Don’t forget to bring your own drying towel if you are not staying at hotel or ryokan associated with the onsen. Some public bath houses will have towels available for rental or purchase but small onsens will most likely not have that option.
Many onsens prohibit tattoos, so if you have any, be sure to cover them up beforehand. Tattoos are most commonly associated with the Yakuza and can be taken as a sign of criminal activity even if they are small and tasteful. Some flesh covered bandages should do the trick. If you have difficult to cover or sleeve tattoos, just know using a public onsen may not be an option for you.
Feeling shy? Although swimsuits are prohibited in most onsen, you can bring a small ‘modesty’ towel (hand towel) around with you to cover up between baths. While in the bath, feel free to place the towel to the side of the bath or folded on top of your head, but make sure not to put the towel in the water as that is considered unsanitary.
Mixed gender bathing:
As most onsen are single gender this usually isn’t possible. There are private or family rooms that can be rented on occasion, but can get very expensive! A few onsen in rural areas will offer mixed baths au naturale. If you’d like to spend some time at the onsen with someone of the opposite gender, there are onsen theme parks complexes with amusement facilities, shopping, games and food prior to and after enjoying a gender segregated bath. Some may offer mixed gender bathing with a swimsuit requirement.
So, have you ever visited an onsen while in Japan?
Tell us which ones you’ve tried in the comments below!