If you've ever been to Japan, you've probably had the opportunity to visit a Japanese hot spring. While often on a traveller's must-do list as a quintessential Japanese experience, hot springs, or onsen as they are known in the Japanese language, are one of the least followed through with activities. Why? Time and time again, I hear these two responses: “I'm not sure what to do!” or “I don't know about the whole naked thing.” Well, today I want to demystify the process and give you insider tips that will have you bathing like a local in no time.
So what exactly are onsen?
Onsen are natural geo-thermal hot springs that either bubble to the surface naturally or are accessed by drilling down into the ground. And thanks to Japan's high geological activity, there are a lot of them across the country. Onsen water contains a range of minerals that are credited to easing and even curing all manner of ailments and illnesses, as well as being attributed to improved general health like increased circulation and beauty benefits such as clearer skin. Onsen may have indoor or outdoor baths, or a combination of both, where visitors bathe communally in a gender-segregated setting.
Wait, you have to be naked in these things?
Now, this is where many, particularly from cultures not used to the idea of communal bathing, stop dead in their tracks and immediately start searching for ways to experience onsen without the need to strip off in front of strangers. Sure, there are water park type facilities where you can enter with a swimsuit and even bathe with members of the opposite sex. But, honestly, you might as well just go to a public pool.
Of course, there is the “private onsen” option at traditional Japanese-style inns, for those who can afford it. If your budget allows for it, these places can sure be nice, but don't be surprised if you are underwhelmed by your expensive hot tub of water, despite how many minerals may be in it. You're likely to get bored after a few minutes and then force yourself to stay in until your fingertips crinkle just because you paid so much for it, and this is supposed to be so “Japanese,” right? Here you miss the point of the Japanese onsen entirely, the idea of communal bathing. Distancing yourself means you learn nothing about what actually happens in a real onsen and so much of the experience comes from being in this communal environment.
Overcoming the fear
The fear of onsen is really a cultural construct. The idea of being naked in front of others may be foreign to some, it was for me too in the beginning, but what we need to recognise here is that this is just fear of the unknown and it's natural to feel that sense of nervousness when we do something for the first time. I'm sure all travelers can relate to the time when they set out on their first real adventure without any idea of what to expect, only to land in that place and wonder what they were worried about all along. My advice is to think about onsen in the same way, just as pre-doing something jitters which will soon pass once we actually give it a go.
If you're still feeling a little embarrassed about getting your kit off, you'll soon realise that despite this image you may have conjured up in your mind where everybody turns to stare as you walk in, nobody is looking at you. People go to the onsen to relax and enjoy themselves. They are not the least bit interested in analysing the human body or your coming and going. I actually like the whole idea of the stripping away of all of the external things that set us apart – the make-up, the clothes, the accessories – and just embracing what makes us the same. In the onsen, despite the fact I'm not looking at anyone or may not even speak to a soul, I feel a real sense of connection to women as a woman, that spans across any cultural or linguistic differences our birth places may have created.
Using an onsen is actually very easy and the rules basically common sense. Here's what you need to know for a successful onsen experience.
What to bring
Money for entry – A usual price would be between ¥600-900. However, some particularly classy places or onsen in the center of cities can be more expensive, as in several thousand yen.
If you are staying at an accommodation that has an onsen attached for free use by guests, then you won't have to worry about this.
¥100 coins – Two are typically needed, one for the shoe locker at the entrance and the other for the locker in the change room. The coins are returned to you once you return the key.
You may wish to bring along a few extra for other things. For example, most baths have hairdryers you can use for free, but some also have more high-powered hairdryers that you can use for a certain number of minutes for a set price (say around ¥200). If you want to use such facilities, it's best to bring along a few more ¥100 coins just in case.
While at most onsen you can rent or buy a towel, you can save yourself some money by bringing your own. It is typical to bring two – a hand towel sized one for bringing into the onsen and a larger one for drying off after. More on that later.
3. Toiletries for washing
Most onsen provide shampoo, conditioner and body wash as part of the entry fee. They are in big bottles at each washing “station.” However, if you wish to use additional/your own products, you should bring those along too.
4. A change of clothes
You can certainly change back into the clothes you were wearing when you went in, but if you're going in to really freshen up, especially if your visit is a post physical activity soak, then you'll definitely appreciate the clean threads.
5. Grooming products
You're going there to bathe, so bring anything you usually need post-shower like a hair brush, deodorant, moisturiser, make-up etc. It's really up to you. Some onsen provide things like lotion and ear buds, but don't count on it. If you are wearing make-up when you go to the onsen, remember to bring something to remove it either in the changing room (like a cleansing wipe or make-up remover and cotton pads) or at the washing station (like a face wash that thoroughly removes make up). It is not acceptable to wear make-up while in the baths as your whole body must be thoroughly washed.
A simple solution if you forget and have panda eyes after showering: use the corner of your small hand towel along with a dab of the body wash provided to gently remove it. Again, more on the towels later.
What to do
1. Take off your shoes
When you enter the establishment, you will need to remove your shoes and put them in the locker provided. Most have coin lockers, while some may just have shelves or alcoves.
2. Pay for entry to the baths
Many use vending machines. The Japanese character for adult is 大 and child 小. Some may even have English, but if not and you are not sure how to use the machine, one of the staff can help you. If you are in a group, there may be a group discount available, and the group size may not have to be large either. I have seen discounted ticket options for groups as small as 4 or 5 people, which could work out nicely for families.
3. Take your ticket to the desk
There your ticket will be stamped and you may also be asked for your shoe locker key, which some places hang on to for safe-keeping while you are in the baths (or to make sure you pay if you go to a place that does the payment after your visit).
4. Head to the baths
The men's baths have a blue curtain with the character 男 on it, while the women's have a red curtain with this character 女. You really can't go wrong if you just remember the color. Accompanied small children may enter either bath.
5. Find a locker/get undressed
When you enter, you'll find yourself in the locker/changing area. Find a locker with a key still it in and put your things inside. You should remove all your clothes and jewelry at this point. Some of the minerals in onsen can be corrosive and clothes or bathing suits of any kind are not allowed.
Leave your large towel and other belongings in the locker and only take your small towel, a hair tie (if necessary) to keep your hair out of the bath water, and any toiletries you may wish to use. If you have a number of items, you may like to bring them in a plastic carry basket or bag.
NOTE: This small towel has a number of purposes – it can be used as a wash cloth, for drying off before going back to the change room and as a “modesty towel” that you can use to cover your front while moving around and between baths (this last purpose is particularly useful if you are feeling apprehensive about your first onsen experience).
6. Get ready to enter
Take the locker key with you and slip it around your wrist (they are attached to some kind of wristband for this purpose). This can stay on whilst in the baths. Remember to close the sliding door behind you when you enter the bathing area.
7. Find a free washing station
The first thing you need to do after entering is to head over to the washing area and wash thoroughly. This is important to maintain cleanliness of the facilities. You can use any washing station that is free. Sometimes you may see personal toiletries in an empty space. Even though someone is not occupying it at that time, it is considered poor etiquette to use the spot in someone's absence. Choose another spot or wait for another one to become available. Sometimes at very busy onsen and/or at popular times, you may have to wait in line to wash.
Once you have a spot, you can start washing. You will find a low stool provided. You should sit on this while washing. Do not stand up like you are taking a shower or you will splash the bathers around you!
If the products don't have any English, look out for:
Shampoo – シャンプー
Conditioner – コンディショナー or リンス
Two-in-one shampoo and conditioner – リンスインシャンプー
Body soap/wash – ボディソ－プ or ボディウォッシュ (basically anything starting with ボディ is for the body)
Even if your hair has been recently washed and you don't wish to wash it again, you must wet it. It is not acceptable to enter the baths with dry hair. Then tie it up so none of your hair will touch the water when you are submerged to your shoulders.
In case you are wondering, it is OK to shave.
9. Rinse your stool
When you are finished washing, you should rinse the stool ready for the next person and put everything back in its original position.
10. Vacate the washing area
To make room for someone else, take any personal toiletries you have and put them elsewhere. Many baths have shelves where you can place your things or sometimes people pop them on top of the low walls that divide the washing area and the baths. Just look for where others have placed their things and follow suit. All you should have with you now is that small towel.
11. Choose a bath
Now it's time to enter the hot springs. Each onsen will be different, but most have multiple baths at different temperatures. Some may have a gauge to indicate the temperature, but a quick toe tip will let you know which ones are hotter. Obviously, the logical thing to do is to start with the cooler ones and then work your way up.
12. Enter the water
When entering the water, you should try to disturb the water as little as possible. Onsen are supposed to be relaxing places. Of course, you can't help but disturb the water a little, just don't rush in, splash or swim.
Keep your face and hair out of the water. Never dunk your head. Onsen water can be quite acidic so you don’t want any of it getting in your eyes, plus it is considered disrespectful and unhygienic. If you have hair that's long enough to touch the water when you are submerged to your shoulders, tie or clip it up. If you have forgotten your hair tie, you can also use your handy small towel to wrap your hair up out of the way. This goes for guys with long hair too.
13. Keep your towel out of the onsen water
Whatever you do, that small towel should NOT enter the onsen water. Some people use it as a wash cloth when washing, but it should not enter the actual hot springs. Either place it outside the bath or fold it into a square and put it on your head. If it should fall in by accident, promptly remove it, and wring it out outside of the bath.
14. Relax and enjoy
Once you are in the water, find a free spot to squat or sit and enjoy the calming waters. Depending on how hot the water is, it may take you a few minutes to submerge yourself to your shoulders. It's totally fine to be partly or even mostly out of the water, and after a while I'm sure you'll want to be. Some people even find a seat out of the baths completely just to sit and cool off. Or you can always return to the coolest bath for a change.
When moving around the baths, be careful not to slip. There are usually some steps involved when moving from an indoor bath to an outdoor one, so walk slowly and use the handrail.
15. Return to the locker/changing area
When you are done, you can pick up your toiletries (if you did take any of your own) and head back to the locker room. If the onsen is particularly acidic or you're just feeling extremely hot, you’ll probably want to rinse off first. Some onsen have a shower-like space or a bucket and ladle with cool water to rinse, or you can head back to the same washing area as in the beginning. It is perfectly fine though to go straight from the baths to the locker room.
16. Dry off with small towel
Use your small hand towel to dry off as best as possible before re-entering the changing area. Don't go in dripping. This is why I personally don't like to use my hand towel as a wash cloth as it will still be damp. But a thoroughly wrung out one also does an adequate job. This is really a matter of personal preference.
17. Dry off completely with large towel
Then you can walk over to your locker and retrieve your large towel to dry off completely.
18. Get dressed
Now with your bathing session complete, you can get dressed again. You did it!
The changing area will have mirrors where there are usually free hairdryers and you can sit and do your hair and make-up. Obviously if it is busy, try not to spend an eternity there. Or if there is a hairdryer at your spot but you are not using it, switch or offer the use of it to someone else.
20. Enjoy the facilities
Many onsen have places to relax afterwards – nice seats, massage chairs, TVs or drinks/snacks. If you have the time, you should take advantage of the facilities!
Give it a go
Visiting onsen is one of my favourite activities here in Japan. They are excellent as part of any trip, both in passing and as a destination in their own right.
If you come all the way to Japan, step outside your comfort zone and give bathing a go Japanese-style.
Want to go inside an onsen virtually?
Here is a video we made where we give you a rare look inside a Japanese onsen and show you how it all works.
Have you ever visited an onsen? What was your experience like? Or would you try one given the chance? Let us know in the comments section below.
Have a question about visiting onsen? We answer our most FAQs here!