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.
Table of Contents
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.
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.
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