Skip to Content

FAQs About Using Japanese Onsen

Japanese onsen, or hot springs, are as much a cultural experience as they are a place to relax and unwind. Without guidance, however, they can be intimidating places for first-time visitors. Here we answer some of the most common FAQs we get about onsen.

If you're looking for information on what to bring to an onsen and how to use one, click on our step-by-step onsen guide here. It also includes a video that will show you exactly what to expect inside a Japanese onsen.

Please consider this page an evolving resource. If you have a question not covered here, please add it to the comments section and we'll update it.

How hot is an onsen?

It can vary, but the hottest baths are usually around 42 degrees Celsius. It is not recommended to stay in such baths for an extended period of time – ten to fifteen minutes is the norm. That's why onsen often have baths of varying temperatures so you can work your way up and rotate. Some have much cooler baths for this purpose, and I've even been to one that had an ice bath! Basically, if you feel light-headed, get out or switch to a cooler bath. Remember to stay hydrated and replenish your system once you get out – there are usually ample vending machines at onsen for this purpose.

How much time do I need to visit an onsen?

You should allocate at least an hour. By the time you get changed, wash, have a quick soak in a few of the baths and then change again, the hour is easily up. Allow more time if you want to take your time in the baths and to relax afterwards.

Is talking allowed in the onsen?

It is perfectly acceptable to talk in the onsen. In fact many people go there with friends or family members to chat in a relaxed setting. Rowdiness, however, is not acceptable. So just be mindful of everyone's right to enjoy the facilities.

As many people go to the onsen to unwind, you should consider that not everybody will be up for a chat. When I go to onsen by myself, which is most of the time, I usually follow the old “don't speak unless spoken to” rule. Sometimes no one speaks to me, and other times people do, usually while soaking in the baths or in the locker room afterwards. They are mostly just curious to know where I am from and how I like Japan.

Can I wear a swimsuit in the onsen?

No, you must be naked inside the baths. Because of this the baths are sex-segregated.

Some onsen do have a joint area that can be enjoyed by both sexes. These areas are generally more like spas and obviously swimsuits are worn in this context. However, most onsen simply have separate areas for naked bathing.

Can I bring a camera?

You cannot use a camera inside the changing area or in the baths themselves for obvious reasons. Some onsen may have stricter policies pertaining to the whole premises – just pay attention to signage or ask if you're not sure. However, it is fine to have one with you and just keep it in the locker while you are using the facilities.

Can babies/children go to onsen?

Yes, of course. Young accompanied children may enter either bath with their guardian. Older children should go to the bath assigned for their gender. Note that the onsen you are visiting may have a policy on the minimum age a child must be to enter the baths unaccompanied.

I have a tattoo. Can I visit an onsen?

Tattoos, even if small and simply a means of artistic expression, are generally not allowed in onsen due to their association with the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. If your tattoo is small and discreet enough, you may be able to get away with covering it with a skin-coloured waterproof bandage. Do so beforehand as you may be asked to leave if your body art is spotted upon entry or in the changing room. You should check the policy of the onsen you are visiting, but be prepared to be refused entry.

Japanese onsen rules tattoos

I have my period. Can I use an onsen?

Unfortunately not. As no swimsuits are allowed in the onsen, you can't get away with wearing a tampon like you can at a beach or swimming pool. This can make things a little difficult when trying to coordinate a visit with a group of girlfriends, but that's just the way it rolls.

If you're ever feeling particularly pressured to participate, just go take a quick shower and return to the changing room. But never enter the bath water!

If you use a moon cup, however, you can probably skirt around this issue entirely.

How can I find an onsen on a map?

Onsen are indicated on maps and signs with the symbol ♨ or the character 湯 (yu, meaning hot water), sometimes expressed in the simpler hiragana text as ゆ so it can be read by younger children.

Can I use these same tips at a rotenboro?

These tips apply to indoor baths and those with indoor and outdoor baths. True outdoor or “open-air” baths, called rotenboro, are different. They are usually much more basic and only have one bath. These are hot springs that have risen to the surface naturally and are part of the surrounding environment. The biggest difference is that such baths don't have washing facilities. There is just a tub with fresh water and a bucket or ladle to rinse yourself with before entering and after exiting the water. No soap or products can be used as they might run off and contaminate the natural springs. Etiquette for in the water though remains the same.

Should I visit a rotenboro or an indoor bath?

There's no reason not to try both if you have the time and inclination. But whether rotenboro or an indoor bath is right for you depends on why you are going to the onsen. If it is to have a relaxing soak, then you will likely enjoy either. If it is to have a good scrub, then an indoor bath might be more your style.

Rotenboro are beautiful to look at it, but the fact that there is usually only one bath and you only rinse yourself off with a bucket before and after, doesn't give you much to do. So much of the onsen experience for me is enjoying the ritual of bathing. Actually sitting down and taking time with each step of the process. And the squeaky clean feeling you get after leaving. Once I've been in a rotenboro for 10-15 minutes, I personally feel like I'm done already.

That's why onsen with both indoor and outdoor facilities are my favourite because you can actually wash, enjoy baths of differing temperatures, and the outdoor baths (despite not actually being rotenboro) are often just as nice with rocks and manicured gardens. If you're only onsen experience has been at a rotenboro and you weren't impressed, I really encourage you to try an onsen with indoor facilities. I guarantee you'll like it much more.

Your question not covered here? Add it to the comments section and we'll update the post.

36 Hours 'Til Europe & Why We're Changing Our Flights
← Previous
10 Reasons to Visit Finland in Summer
Next →

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Kerry Summerville

Monday 23rd of September 2019

Can I wear nail polish in onsens?

Jessica Korteman

Monday 23rd of September 2019

Hi Kerry, wearing nail polish in onsen is no problem. The only problem would be actually painting your nails in the dressing room because of the smell (I don't think that's what you were suggesting anyway), but just having nail polish on is fine.

Ally

Thursday 16th of May 2019

Hello, my boyfriend and I would like to visit an onsen. How do you and your husband coordinate when to meet up? Are you allowed to wear a watch inside the onsen?

Jessica Korteman

Friday 17th of May 2019

Hi Ally,

No, you can't wear a watch in the onsen. You'll have to remove it when you get undressed.

There are sometimes clocks inside the bathing areas to help you keep track of time, but even if there isn't, there's always a clock in the changing area. Sometimes you are able to see it from certain angles from the bathing area. Really just depends on the onsen and its layout. Some have numerous clocks and others try to restrict clocks to the changing area so as to allow bathers to relax without feeling the constraints of time.

But to answer your question, my husband and I just decide on a time/spot to meet before we head into the respective baths. After many years of going to onsen, I'm pretty good at judging how long I've been in there. However, if I'm not sure or want to check, and there is no clock in the bathing area, I just go have a quick glance in the changing area to check.

Hope that helps and enjoy your onsen experience!

Diane Wilkes

Thursday 21st of March 2019

Is nail polish on fingers or toes allowed in an Onsen?

Jessica Korteman

Friday 22nd of March 2019

Hi Diane, yes, absolutely!

7 Interesting Things to do in Matsuyama, Japan (plus combining your trip with Tokyo)

Friday 7th of December 2018

[…] you're interested in Japanese hot springs, then Dōgo Onsen is one of the most iconic in the country. It's the oldest hot spring in Japan […]

Dini

Friday 3rd of August 2018

Hi Jessica!

Love your article as I am a bit nervous for my 1st Japan Trip by early dec and the most highlighted must to do/ visit is the Onsen (besides Disneyland for the kids of course). Wondering if you could suggest best area to visit for kids friendly onsen (as we also want to visit the snow monkey resort, is Shibu Onsen good to visit?). We also planning to stay at Ryokan with own onsen, any recommendations or links will be much appreciated :)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.