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Japanese Onsen: Know before you go!

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If you’re considering a trip to Japan, visiting an onsen is a cultural experience you shouldn’t miss.

Onsen are natural hot spring baths found all over Japan. There are many types of onsen in Japan differing in the type of spring water used, how luxurious or basic the facilities are, whether they are private or public or have indoor and/or outdoor baths. There are even onsen with specific minerals to help soften the skin and some with red wine, miso and green tea baths. It is Japan after all, so expect the weird and wonderful.

As a rule, onsen are gender separated which means that women only bath with women, and men with men. However some mixed onsens do exist where bathers are usually worn which are particularly handy if you want the onsen experience without the public nudity! Private onsen for couples/families are more common in Ryokan accommodation, while public onsen can be found almost anywhere, including highway rest stops which we’ve taken advantage of during our recent road trip.

Visiting onsen is a very popular pastime in Japan and you’ll often see friends and multigenerational families bathing together in the public baths. It’s an intensely relaxing and rejuvenating experience with only one small catch… you have to bathe in your birthday suit!

Yep, for anyone who shares my delicate Western sensibilities, getting your kit off in public is not something you’re entirely comfortable with. In fact, a lot of my adult life has been spent trying to keep all my lumps and bumps nicely hidden, not getting them out for everyone to see. The idea was so confronting to me that prior to our first trip to Japan I went a little overboard with the googling about onsen and onsen etiquette to the point where I spent much longer than I’d like to admit trying to figure out what kind of pubic hair style was culturally appropriate for an onsen visit. Yes, really. I was relieved to discover when I finally got there that just like anywhere else in the world, lady bushes in Japan come in all shapes and sizes and also, no one gives a shit about your pubes you big weirdo (me!). Anyway, nudity aside, onsen are pretty great so embrace your beautiful bod and just go for it!

Onsen Etiquette 101:

While most onsen seem pretty relaxed, there is some important etiquette you need to follow during your visit. *For obvious reasons, I can’t share any photos from the inside of onsens with you, but the most are laid out very similarly.

  1. Upon entering an onsen establishment, you’ll find shoe lockers near the entrance/foyer. Take off your shoes and lock ’em up before passing go… or proceeding to the counter.
  2. Pay for your onsen experience at the counter and if you don’t have your own towel, purchase one now. Usually they are only 100-200 yen and you can keep them or throw them into the laundry pile before leaving at the end. *Do not be alarmed if the towel you’re given is the size of a hand towel/loin cloth – this is normal. Bring your own bigger sized towel for drying yourself too if you think you’ll need it.
  3. Move on to the change rooms – this is where you’ll be separated into genders. Choose a locker or find the one that matches they key on your wristband if you received one on entry. In more upmarket onsens, you’ll often be given a wristband with a locker key at the counter which you can use to make food and other purchases within the onsen. You’ll pay the total when you return your wristband when ‘checking out’. You may also receive an onsen outfit consisting of baggy pants and a tunic style top which you can wear around the public areas of the onsen (not in the bathing area). These outfits do need to be returned when leaving.
  4. Once you’ve found a locker inside the change room, its the moment of truth. Get that kit off, lock up your stuff, grab your loin cloth and into the bathing area you go!
  5. MOST IMPORTANT: Before soaking into a hot bath, you MUST shower thoroughly. I’m talking your neck, your back, your p… well you get the gist. The shower area is usually always inside the bath area and will consist of a line of little shower stations equiped with their own shampoo and body wash, conditioner too if you’re lucky. Take a seat at the teeny, tiny stool at your shower station and scrub away. I’m not certain it’s expected, but I always wash my hair at this point. If you want to bring in your own toiletries for washing, you can do so too.
  6. After showering, you’re free to test out whichever baths take your fancy. Depending on where you go, you may have a choice of warm or extra hot baths, jet spas, outdoor baths, plunge pools, saunas and more. I’ve never been told, but it seems as though your hair is not meant to go into the bath water, so if you have long hair, tie it up. If you still have your loin cloth/towel with you, its normal to fold it up into a square and pop it on top of your head while you soak. Or, you can just leave it somewhere nearby where it wont get wet.
  7. When you’re done in the baths, head back to the shower station for a quick rinse before proceeding to the change room.
  8. Where are you meant to dry yourself off? I’m really not sure where the ‘correct’ place is to dry yourself.. maybe there isn’t one. Usually, I awkwardly half dry in the bathing area and finish off the job at my locker, trying not to leave a puddle of water on the floor as I go. Once clothed, you’ll find there are also vanity stations nearby where hairdryers are available to dry your hair, clean your ears, do your makeup or whatever floats your boat.
  9. Ditch your towel on the way out (or keep it for future use if you’re a tightwad like me). and give yourself a big pat on the back because you just survived your first onsen experience!

I hope you loved it. And don’t worry if you still feel a bit awkward, its taken me a few times to get used to it but I really relish the experience now and I’m sure you will too. There aren’t too many places in the world you can lay back and relax in a hot spring under the open sky, surrounded by snow and incredible nature.

Re: Tattoos in onsen

I have a small tattoo on my back and haven’t had any issues visiting Japanese onsen. Admittedly my Japanese isn’t great so I probably wouldn’t understand if someone told me before entering that tattoos aren’t allowed, but I always try to be as discreet as possible and I haven’t noticed any disapproving looks directed my way as yet. If you have big or more obvious tattoos, it could be an issue at certain onsen and it’s worth looking up the onsen regulations before you go to avoid any disappointment. Here are a few tattoo-friendly onsen to get you started.

Any questions? Leave them in the comments 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Japanese Onsen: Know before you go!

  1. Pingback: Road trip living: Laundry and Showering in Japan – CURRYANDKRAUT

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