How to Onsen: a guide to Japanese hot springs

Taking advantage of the volcanic activity in its islands, Japan has a strong and ancient hot spring culture.

Few countries in the west have anything similar and I know it can feel daunting to use these facilities for the first time. Onsen ((温泉, the Japanese word for hot spring) is a great experience and really should be tried while visiting Japan.

I thought I’d write a small guide on how to use them to demystify the experience.

 

The concept:

Onsen are communal baths of mineral rich water coming straight from geothermally heated springs.

Different locations have different temperatures (20°C – 90°C) and mineral contents (sulphur, iron…) , each believed to have different virtues.

The baths are separated by gender and are located outdoors or indoors.

General etiquette:

  • Check if tattoos are banned. Many resorts still ban them as they are linked to the Yakuza (Japanese triads) and foreigners are not exempt to the rule.
  • Check if swimsuits are permitted. Most of the time they are not and everyone must enter the water in their birthday suit.
  • Enter the correct bath! Men and women are separated.
  • You will usually be provided with two towels: a small one to wipe sweat from your face, a big one to dry yourself after bathing.
  • Entering the water with a towel is often forbidden.

 

General Layout:

Behind the first set of doors is the changing room & toilets.

Behind the second set of doors is the showering area and hot spring pool.

 

Process:

  1. In the changing room users are required to remove their shoes and place them in a specific cabinet at the entrance.
  2. After that one must undress completely and place all clothing either in a locker or an individual basket (whichever is provided). Take your small towel and locker key with you to the next area, usually behind sliding glass doors.
  3. Proceed to the bathing area where you will find shower hoses along the wall, with a small wooden stool and wooden bucket.  Rinse the stool, sit down and wash your body carefully, make sure to rinse off all soap residue! In some facilities you may only find the wooden bucket on the side of the main hot spring bath. In this case dip the bucket in the bath and splash yourself with water while standing further away (so the water from your body doesn’t splash into the communal bath).
  4. Once clean, proceed to the main hot spring pool. Depending on the facilities they may be only one pool or many. If given the choice, start with one which has a temperature between 35°C & 40°C, to give yourself time to adjust. Place your towel on the rocks by the side of the pool, sit it on top of your head or wrap it around your forehead like a scarf. Do not dip it in the water or try to hide your body behind it as the Japanese do not like anything unclean to enter the water.
  5. Enjoy! Sit in the pool with water up to your neck and relax! I recommend getting out to cool off every 10 mins to avoid any dizziness. Some places even provide benches for this purpose. If there are multiple pools, try them all as they each have different minerals or “flavourings”.
  6. Once finished, proceed back to the shower area and wash yourself again.
  7. Then return to the changing room, get dress and off you go!

Tips:

  • If you’re really feeling self conscious, go to the hot spring late at night or early in the morning, there will be a lot less people.
  • Feel free to bring a bag with clean clothing and cosmetic products to use for your shower.
  • Onsen makes one sleepy and peckish, so I like to enjoy them in the evening, followed by a hearty snack and a good night sleep.
  • If in doubt: when in Rome, do as the Roman’s do. Each onsen is different and facilities and rules may differ. If you’re unsure ask or copy the locals!
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