Visiting onsen, or hot springs baths, is a national pastime in Japan. They’re literally part of the landscape, as they’ve been around since tectonic activity formed the Japanese archipelago millions of years ago. Wherever there’s a mountain — and there are a lot of mountains in Japan — there are usually onsen.
Japanese people have been enjoying the therapeutic and medicinal benefits of hot springs since ancient times. Now, foreign travelers are finally catching on, electing to stay at traditional ryokan with luxe communal baths instead of regular, run-of-the-mill hotels.
We’ve prepared a thorough guide that explains the various dos and don’ts of enjoying Japan’s best kept secret.
The Etiquette of Onsen
Onsen can be intimidating for first-time visitors. The thought of bathing next to unknown bodies often deters shyer types from using them at all. However, most people find that their anxiety evaporates once they’re immersed in the pleasant warmth of a steaming natural bath.
Rest assured, onsen etiquette is all pretty straightforward. First and foremost, hot spring baths require that you enter completely naked — this means no swimsuits. If you’re a guest at a ryokan, you’ll typically receive a yukata, a light cotton kimono, that you can wear to change into after you’ve bathed. Your lodgings will also provide one average-sized towel and one small towel. Make sure to bring these with you when you decide to venture to the baths. Remember that onsen are usually separated into male and female areas, although there are several co-ed onsen scattered around Japan.
Unfortunately, transgender, genderqueer, and intersex patrons may face considerable difficulty entering an onsen, although there is presently an effort in Beppu to make hot spring resorts more friendly to people of all genders.
How to Bathe
The changing area of onsen often has lockers or baskets where you can store your clothes and belongings — after shedding your clothes, take only the small towel with you into the bathing area. It’s common sense, but in no circumstances should you use your camera or cell phone in the changing room or bathing area!
Before entering the baths themselves, you’ve got to shower first. You will probably see small plastic seats and shallow buckets stacked neatly at the entrance. Grab one of each and head to one of the small showers lining the side of the room. Wash your body thoroughly, making sure to rinse off any soapy residue. The small towel you can use to scrub your body, and/or tie up your hair — whatever you do, make sure that neither the towel nor your hair ever touches the water of the baths. While soaking, most people fold up their towels and rest them on top of their heads.
Once you’re completely clean, you’re ready to enjoy the onsen!
The Tattoo Problem
While many onsen forbid patrons with tattoos (citing past problems with organized crime), others turn a blind eye to smaller tattoos, or don’t mind tattoos on foreign guests. If you’re significantly inked, it’s best to double check with the onsen before your visit. If your tattoos are small, it might be wise to simply place a band-aid over to them as a temporarily concealer. There are many tattoo-friendly establishments out there, so don’t worry if your first choice hot spring turns you down.
The Baths of Japan
Hot spring water varies from onsen to onsen. Onsen owners usually tout their baths as containing some kind of positive effects — medicinal, therapeutic, or beautifying. For example, the Takimotokan onsen in Hokkaido is home to five different springs, each with their own distinct benefits. The sodium spring supposedly softens your skin and relieves eczema, while the “ferrous sulphate” spring is meant to enhance circulation.
This trend is not specific to Takimotokan: hot springs all over Japan claim the unique, curative powers of their geothermal waters. The best hot spring destinations are in no way secluded to one area of Japan — you can find amazing onsen in almost every Japanese prefecture. If you’re staying near Tokyo, one of the most accessible onsen spots is Hakone, a small town with the country’s most jaw-dropping vistas of Mount Fuji.
Finally, for those people who still aren’t convinced that public bathing is for them, there are hundreds of private onsen out there, and/or onsen that can be rented for private parties only. While a bit on the pricier side, Ryokan Kurashiki near Okayama, and Gora Kadan in Hakone, are two such onsen that come highly recommended.