Onsen Etiquette – Bathing in an onsen on Japan is a quintessential must-do. It’s a checkbox that must be ticked when visiting this culture-rich country, and it’s one of the few experiences that makes any traveller appreciate the intricacies and differences of a culture as unique and remarkable as the Japanese. Whilst you may have caught the wanderlust bug and been itching to visit Japan after seeing the stunning pics on Instagram depicting private onsen pools, wide open windows, stunning mountainous and/or ocean views, and the idea of serenity and possibly even catching some shut-eye whilst basking in the water under the sun, the truth is, if you truly want the most authentic onsen experience, it will most likely be nothing like that.
Private onsens are sometimes provided for the comfort of ryokan and hotel guests, but the luxury comes at quite a high cost. For the most part, the Japanese people partake in bathing in public onsen baths. As you may have heard, there are a few rules and etiquettes that you will need to abide by when bathing in a public onsen. Whilst some may seem a bit bizarre and challenge of your idea of comfort, rest assured, this is completely normal in Japan, and you’re not going to stand out quite like the sore thumb that you think you would.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #1 – No Swimming Suits
As much as you’ve grown up thinking that swimming in your birthday suit is quite an offence, in Japan, stripping down for the onsen pools is not just recommended, it’s an absolute must. There are very few places across Japan that will allow you to wear a suit, so you may as well get use to the fact now. However, there is no need to feel modest, because majority of the bathers will be regulars, and won’t even glance your way as you self-consciously make your way into the water. It’s also understood that without anything covering your body, your skin is getting the most of the benefits of the onsen waters.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #2 – Are Tattoos Allowed?
This is a touchy subject. In the past, tattoos (or any ink on the body) has been associated with the yakuza, a gang organisation in Japan where members have been known to be heavily tattooed, and thus carries negative connotations and unwarranted attention. Majority of traditional public onsens these days still enforce the rule where anyone who has a tattoo is not allowed to participate in the onsen. People have tried to sneak in, in the past, but have been caught and asked to leave. However, there are increasingly changing attitudes towards tattoos these days, and below are a few that do allow people with tattoos to use their onsens:
Hottarakashi – Yamanashi
- Address: 1669-18 Yatsubo, Yamanashi, 405-0036, Japan
- Hours: Sunrise – 10:00pm
- Price: Adults: 800yen, Children: 400yen
- Tip: wake up early and head to the onsen to catch the sunrise.
Mikokuyu – Tokyo
- Address: 3-chōme-30-8 Ishiwara, Sumida-ku, Tōkyō-to 130-0011
- Hours: 3:30pm – 2:00am (Closed Mondays)
- Price: 1500yen per person, 90 minutes
- Tip: There’s a wide selection of baths there, from scalding hot to ice cold.
Yamato no Yu – Chiba
- Address: 1630 Odake, Narita, Chiba 286-0841, Japan
- Hours: 10am – 10pm
- Price: Weekdays – 800yen, Weekends – 1000yen
- Tip: If you can appreciate simple yet stunning architecture, this is the one for you.
Rule #3 – Shower first!
Whilst the idea of showering in water just so that you can get into another body of water may be lost to some, it makes complete sense when talking about bathing in an onsen, because the idea behind an onsen is not to scrub yourself clean and wash away grime, it’s to relax and soak in the nutrient-filled water, and come out feeling soft and pliant, with your muscles hopefully nice and languid.
With that being said, you’re probably wondering how to wash yourself beforehand. You won’t need to do so at your own bathroom before heading to one, as they provide you with the facilities to do that onsite. Once you arrive and pay for your session, you split into gender-specific onsen rooms, place your belongings into a locker, and head to the showers outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided, and there are small stools that you are expected to sit down on whilst you wash yourself, so as to minimise the splash of water and soap on other people as if you were standing up. If you were to leave the onsen for any reason (like to visit the sauna or steam room), you will be expected to take another quick shower before entering the onsen again.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #4 – Towels
Most places will include a small and a large towel in the price of using the onsen, however, you may still come across some that charge for towel rental on top of the price, so be prepared – it will only be a few hundred yen at most. The large towel is to be used after you first shower, and once you’re finished with it, you leave it with your clothes in the changing room. The small towel is one that you can take with you to the pool, but you must not let it go into the water – there is a strict rule regarding that. Most people will be fold it and leave it on top of their heads whilst they close their eyes and rest.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #5 – Don’t Drink Alcohol Before Onsen
This one goes without saying – don’t consume any alcohol before an onsen. Just like you wouldn’t consume alcohol before jumping into a pool, or the ocean, or a lake, or any body of water in fact, you wouldn’t drink any alcohol before entering an onsen, and here are a few compelling reasons why:
- There are many heat dangers with being in an onsen, such as dehydration and heat exhaustion, and consuming alcohol will either spike or accelerate that. This is best avoided.
- It is dangerous. Being intoxicated in water can result in some fatal accidents that can be easily avoided.
- Alcohol often tends to create rowdy crowds, and onsens, as you may have guessed, are one of the most peaceful and calm places in Japan you can experience. Conversation is usually hushed and the Japanese even try to minimize their water splashes, so you can bet that boisterous behavior is heavily frowned upon, and might even get you removed.
Rule #6 – No Showering After Onsen
There are many benefits to bathing in an onsen, with majority of them condensed into what is known as the ‘beauty effect’ on the onsen. Some typical effects include (but are definitely not limited to) greater blood circulation, removal of dead skin, skin rejuvenation, skin hydration, and so on. However, one of the mistakes that many people make when partaking in an onsen experience is that they exit the bath after a luxurious session of soaking in the waters, and immediately head for the showers. Whilst this may be the natural immediate action, it is highly recommended that you simply wipe yourself down and give your body some time to absorb all the benefits into the skin before having a rinse later on. If you shower straight away, the beauty effects will be watered down. It is, however, recommended that you hydrate yourself immediately after exiting the onsen.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #7 – How Long Should You Spend In An Onsen?
This is a completely subjective point of view, and you may hear different experiences from different people about how long you should spend in an onsen, however, generally an hour for the full experience is adequate enough time for people to relax, get a feel of the onsen, and comfortably shower and dress without having to rush. Some onsens may charge by the hour, which make is it easy. However, others may charge per entry, so you can try and maximize your time at these places, as long as your body can handle it. You also need to take into account how much heat your own body can handle: if it tends to overheat, don’t spend too long in one sitting in the onsen bath, as you run the risk of heat exhaustion. You can dip in an out of the onsen pool to use the steam and sauna rooms if it gets too hot, however, remember to rinse every time before getting back into the water.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #8 – Tie Your Long Hair
This is an important rule that’s often neglected but if you have long-ish hair, please tie it up neatly before you enter the waters. It is a disturbing thought to be nice and relaxed in the onsen when you accidently pick up someone else’s long strand of hair on your arm. No one wants to be in that position, and it’s up to everyone to make sure they’re following this rule so that it doesn’t happen. It’s unhygienic and you will see that many onsen places will touch on this rule when admitting you. It also saves you from splashing unnecessary water on other people when hopping out of the pool as your hair will already be in a neat ponytail.
Rule #9 – Hydrate Yourself Regularly
This has been mentioned lightly in other sections but it is extremely important to make sure you regularly hydrate yourself when using the onsen pools. The hottest baths at any onsen is usually around the 42 degrees’ Celsius mark, which is quite hot. People will generally stay in this bath for around 10 to 15 minutes tops before hopping out and into a cooler bath. As a rule of thumb, people commonly go from the coolest bath and make their way up to the hottest bath, as a way of aclimatising their body, and then back again. As you’re constantly exposing your body to heated water, you will be sweating out the internal moisture in your body and will need to constantly replenish them (Tip: bathe until you begin to sweat from your forehead and the tip of your nose). Dehydration and submerging your body into hot water temperatures for lengthy periods of time can lead to heat exhaustion, dizziness, and nausea. Keep a bottle of water or sports drink nearby.
Onsen Etiquette Rule #10 – Follow The Japanese People
So, essentially this is a guide on how to bathe with naked strangers in Japan. If you take a step back and think about it, it is a bit bizarre. Given that there are 10 rules outlined here, and probably a few more common sense etiquettes that weren’t covered, we understand that you may feel a bit overwhelmed by these rules. Therefore, if all is lost, just watch (discreetly) what the Japanese people are doing at the onsen, and follow suit. Otherwise, if you’re really unsure, simply ask the fellow onsen-goers if you’re confused about something and they’ll be more than happy to help – just cover yourself up slightly, as it may come across awkward if you strike up a conversation stark naked!
We hope this article has shed some light on your uncertainties about heading to an onsen bath. Whilst the rules may seem a tad intimidating at first, trust us when we say, it’s all a smooth process once you’re inside. If you’re going with a group of friends, just make a pact that you’ll avoid looking at each other and just have fun and make the most of it. Most people just follow the crowd (hence rule #10!), and the locals won’t even bat an eyelid at seeing you naked – it’s the Japanese norm after all!
For more info about onsen, you can also read these articles :