Onsen Like A Local

The Scandinavians have their saunas. The Moroccans love their hammams. The Japanese worship their onsens.

Visiting an onsen is a uniquely Japanese experience that you shouldn’t miss while you’re in this incredible country. Onsens are natural hot spring baths that are scattered throughout Japan. For foreigners the communal bathing, public nudity and unspoken Japanese etiquette make visiting an onsen intimidating; so most people decide to skip it. That’s a shame, since bathing in an onsen is a rejuvinating experience that’ll leave you refreshed, relaxed, and clean.

So to help you on your way to your first experience, here’s everything you need to know about bathing in an Onsen.


How To Bathe In An Onsen

photo credit: Onsen 温泉 via photopin (license)
photo credit: Onsen 温泉 via photopin (license)
  • Once you’ve checked into an onsen, you’ll likely be given a towel and soap to take with you into the changing room.
  • Most onsens segregate bathing areas for men and women. Make sure you enter the correct changing room. The mens room is usually marked with a blue curtain and the character (otoko), while the women have a red curtain with the character (onna).
  • Next is the hard part for most people. Time to get naked! Take off all your clothes (no swimsuits allowed) and put them in the baskets or lockers that have been provided.
  • Enter the shower area but only bring your hand towel and soap with you. The hand towel is a modesty towel that you can use to cover your genital area.
  • Before getting into the onsen it’s important you clean your body. Most establishments will have showers with stools and a bucket. From the bucket, scoop water and clean yourself with the soap making sure to clean all your dirty bits. It’s usually customary to douse yourself with the bucket about 10 times. Don’t worry, no one is standing over you counting 🙂 .
  • Now you’re ready to step into the onsen. Be careful, these are hot springs and are usually hotter than Jacuzzis. So don’t jump into the spring or you’ll give your body a nasty surprise. As you enter, gradually lower your body into the hot waters letting yourself adjust to its heat. As you slowly dip into the water make sure you don’t submerge your towel. Instead place it on your head or on the side of the water.
  • Now you can relax and enjoy yourself in the onsen. Let the hot water do its magic. Bathe for 5 – 10 minutes and then sit on the rim of the bath to rest. Repeat this a couple of times.
  • Remember, these are hot waters and you’ll probably sweat. So dehydration is a risk. Make sure you drink plenty of water before and after your session. Also, the recommended time in the onsen is around 30 minutes.
  • Wipe your body down as much as possible with the hand towel before re-entering the changing area.

Basic Onsen Etiquette

  • Take off your shoes. Onsens always have tatami (traditional Japanese floors) in the changing area and wearing your shoes on the tatami is a major no-no.
  • When you go to the showers to clean yourself (before entering the onsen), make sure you’re sitting down on the stool so that you don’t accidentally spray the person next to you.
  • If you have long hair, make sure that you tie it back. It’s considered bad form to let your hair touch the water. The Japanese don’t like loose hair floating in their water. Can you blame them? Who does 😉  ?
  • If you have tattoos, call ahead to the onsen to make sure they are OK with it. People with tattoos may be refused service in some establishments. The Japanese frown upon tattoos due to the inferred association with the Yakuza.
  • When in doubt, watch and copy what everyone else is doing. This is a unique Japanese experience and sometimes the best way to learn is to imitate.

There you go! That’s everything you need to know to be able to onsen like the locals.

Still need more motivation? Check out the below video from one of my favorite bloggers on YouTube who visited an onsen. She does a great job of covering basic rules and etiquette of how to onsen, which are covered in this article.