A Beginner’s Guide To Onsen

Ask anyone why they want to visit Japan, and the most common answers you would probably get are: to see the cherry blossoms, to ride the Shinkansen, to indulge the best sashimi and ramen, and to visit temples, shrines. Very few would say that they want to try an onsen, as this Japanese hot spring conjures awkward thoughts of skinny dipping in a pool with complete strangers. But don’t fret! Going to an onsen is actually an exciting and relaxing experience that’s a must if you’re visiting Japan. Here, we give you the 411 on how to onsen.



What is an Onsen?

via KKday Supplier

Thanks to Japan’s many volcanoes, the country is blessed with countless onsens, which translates to “hot spring water.” It contains a variety of natural minerals that are beneficial for the body.

Imagine a beautiful pool made of marble, granite, or even wood filled with natural hot water against a backdrop of a mountain, drizzling snow, lush scenery, or with the rippling sound of another body of water near it. You get all that plus a relaxing and therapeutic bath.

Onsen bathing is embedded in Japanese culture. As such, proper etiquette while bathing in it must be observed.

Whether it’s your first time to visit an onsen or are a regular, these onsen rules of decorum must be strictly followed:



Bare It Or Don’t Get In It

Even your barely-there bikinis or skimpy trunks are not allowed in an onsen. While it’s totally understandable to feel anxious about going naked in front of complete strangers, trust us when we say that nobody in the pool would even take notice of your nakedness because all of you are naked anyway. 

But if you’re conscious about being totally bare in front of others, then go for an onsen with “milky” water or one of the private ones provided in some ryokans. You will get the much-needed “coverage” you want while getting all the warmth and relaxation you need. Or if you’re bold enough, go dip yourself in a rotenburo, the outdoor onsen.

Also, onsens are separated according to gender. So there’s really nothing to fear about being bare naked in the presence of your own kind.



But First, Shower

via Héctor García on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Because the onsen is for communal use, the water in it must be kept as clean as possible, so you are required to take a bath before taking a dip into an onsen. Rows of bath showers are provided in an onsen, including toiletries and a dipper. 

While it’s very common for most foreigners to stand while bathing, that’s actually bad manners in Japanese culture. You have to sit on a stool provided in each shower and make sure not to sprinkle water to the person bathing beside you.

Rinse out well all the suds on your body from the soap and shampoo you used before going in an onsen. 

Likewise, after your soaking session in an onsen, you have the option to take a shower again.



Use The Towels Accordingly

via Christian Kaden on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Towels are provided for all for most of the time. You’ll be given two kinds of towels.

The big towel is for drying your body and should be left in the changing room together with your clothes. The small towel is for washing. You can take it with you as you soak in the water. Many put it on top of their heads. But be careful not to drop it into the water.



Keep Your Head (And Hair) Up

Dipping your hair or head is a major faux pas in an onsen. So tie and secure those long hair strands in a bun. 

The same rule goes for those without any hair on their head. Submerging your head into the water is not allowed so that the water does not get dirty. 

By not dipping your hair or head in the water, you not only prevent the water from getting contaminated, but you also protect yourself from ingesting any bacteria that may be present in the water itself.




No Tattoos And Alcohol


via Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Tattoos may be considered beautiful in other cultures, but they are still considered taboo in Japan. So if you have a tattoo that decorates any part of your body, you won’t be allowed to enter an onsen. 

However, if you have a really small tattoo that’s barely noticeable, you might get away with it and enter the onsen freely. Some onsens actually allow entrance for those with very tiny tattoos. Another option is to cover it up with a bandage.

But if you really want to take a dip in an onsen, you might want to check-in one of the private onsens provided in a ryokan. By doing so, it would just be you and your friends bathing in your own private place.

Likewise, sake or any kind of alcohol are not allowed while bathing in an onsen. This is for your own safety as well. 



Keep Noise At A Minimum Level

Just keep in mind that you’re in a public place with other bathers who also want to relax. You may talk with your companions while bathing but keep your volumes to a minimum.


Ready for your onsen experience? Book it on KKday now!



*Featured image from KKday Supplier