Enjoying a Japanese onsen experience is one of my favorite local pastimes. I can truly think of no better way to relax and soak away the stress that accumulates from life and work than a dip in a natural hot spring. Unfortunately for travelers to Japan though, onsen also come with a lot of rules that can make for a bit of a challenge. Of course, this means one’s first time trip to a hot spring 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 hot bath where there is water sourced from a natural hot spring. You can thank the abundant seismic activity and volcanoes in Japan for the vast 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 take a dip together.
Note that you easily can find an a place to melt away your worries by looking for the symbol on a map. Confusingly, 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.
Prepare for Your Onsen Experience
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 in Japan; Everyone will be too busy enjoying their own soaking to really care. Similarly, you need not concern yourself with being in the best physical shape. After all, most of your fellow Japanese bathers aren’t going to have “perfect” bodies either!
When it comes to hygiene, you should know that Japanese people have a reputation for not removing body hair. 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 who regularly trims the proverbial 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 a hot bath together.
Do you have tattoos? If so, you’re going to do some research. Most Japanese locales forbid tattoos completely while others actually allow them. To make things even more confusing, some places ban tattoos in general, but make exceptions for small ones. Check with the onsens that you plan to visit first! Roughly a third of all recognized establishments in Japan do not restrict tattoos at all so don’t get discouraged. There are definitely options out there for you if you do your homework!
When it comes to what to bring to the onsen in Japan, be sure to pack your own toiletries if possible. Most properties have some available, but the quality can vary. If you are rocking long hair, you will want to have some ties ready to keep your mane out of the bath. Lastly, you will need to bring two towels or be prepared to rent/buy them. Almost all locations have rentals available. You will need one large bath towel and a smaller one (sometimes, these can be bought via a vending machine).
Optional: Bring an akasuri. These are Japanese towels that are 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.
Begin with a Health Check
Make sure your physical condition is suitable and DO NOT show up drunk to a hot spring in Japan. While many properties do indeed serve alcoholic drinks, it’s best to wait until after your soak. Also, avoid entering an onsen if you are at very high risk for heart disease or are undergoing cancer treatment. The intense heat can be quite the issue for those suffering from these ailments
Additionally, while this should be common sense, for the sake of everyone in the onsen bath, 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 everyone else. Not only is it gross, it’s inconsiderate.
For the ladies out there, I’m aware that there are some uh…. “other concerns” that you’ll need to be mindful of. To be honest, I often do get asked by readers “Can you go to hot springs on your period?” Seeing I represent the male species and there don’t know what something like a menstrual cup even is, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise. But, have no fear, a longtime female friend has shared the following info with us…
Take caution during your menstrual cycle. Many women experience dizziness from the heat during the heavier parts of their cycle. There 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 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 several months of pregnancy makes you feel unbalanced or dizzy. Otherwise, relax and soak up the steamy bath with everyone else
Getting Ready for Your Hot Bath
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 be sure that you don’t lose it. If you are staying at a hotel or traditional Japanese ryokan with its own spring, you will not need to buy a ticket to enter. The property 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 your own, 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 even sell yukata for purchase should you be enamored by the design.
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 a 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 sections where there will be nude Japanese people unless you want to visit a local 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 onsen have only one or two tubs, while some larger ones will have five or even more.
The tubs will look enticing, but don’t enter them without cleaning yourself first. Bathing is first and foremost a relaxing endeavor in the so-called “Land of the Rising Sun” so people cleanse themselves first. Remember, Japanese onsen 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 an empty shower. Now, thoroughly wash yourself head-to-toe. This means shampooing, lathering up your whole body with soap, and giving yourself a good washing. Use your small towel to help scrub your skin clean. Don’t miss any spots, and make sure to rinse off completely. Some establishments ban certain types of scrubs. If you have brought your own, check if it’s OK to use first.
After you shower, wash the soap off of your stool and shower area. Make sure to rinse your hand 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 longer locks, tie them up into a bun or high ponytail so that it never touch the bath water.
Enjoy Soaking in a Japanese Onsen
Now you’re finally set to head for the healing waters! 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 cloth should NEVER enter the onsen bath itself. Once you’re in, most people fold up their towelettes and place them on their heads while they bathe.
Onsen bath 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 hot water prior to entering. As mentioned above though, do not put anything in the bath; use the bucket instead.
Some properties have just one bath but others have many so consider giving each tub 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.
In addition to hot water ones, you may also encounter a cool 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 tub, 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 oneat 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 towel. Sento and 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 also 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 properties 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. While I’d like to shed some light on the topic, there is not a clear-cut answer to this query; both sides of the argument have merits. Some onsen baths have special properties that benefit the skin. This is why some people do not wish to wash off immediately afterwards. If everything feels nice and smooth after the bath, you might want to skip the shower.
On the other hand, onsen bath water is shared and some people do not feel that it is truly clean. Also, certain onsen water types may be harsh 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 a lot of dead skin. This makes it very easy to scrub off all that excess dead skin with an akasuri. Indeed, it is better 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 first cool down then 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 many Japanese onsen the dryers are free of charge but 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 just 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. Hot Spring 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 when entering the bath area. 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 in. One is to rent a private onsen as this will allow you to avoid any awkwardness in the changing room. If you are staying overnight at a hotel at an onsen town, 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 a 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 (aside from onsen bathroom confusion). Co-ed facilities are called konyoku in Japanese and there are still more than 80 co-ed onsen scattered across Japan. 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 not allowed to enter onsen or sento baths.
Until next time travelers…