When asked about their favourite thing in Japan, many people will probably answer the friendliness of the Japanese, the food and also onsen. Indeed, taking an onsen, a geothermally heated spring filled with water that contains several minerals beneficial to body, is a must-try activity for tourists as it is completely different from taking a bath in other countries around the world. It is the ultimate activity to relax after a day filled with discovering the nature and culture of Japan.
The Japanese have been enjoying onsen since before records were kept. There are over 30,000 natural onsen in Japan and over more than 3,000 onsen resorts in Japan. Onsen can be either attached to a hotel or ryokan or public accessible. Generally speaking, onsen are separated by gender (through partitions or bathing times) and often they have multiple bathing areas (indoor and outdoor).
Onsen are not water parks or bathhouses, where people can play freely. There are several written and unwritten rules and everyone should obey the manners when they taking an onsen. As a tourist, you probably have little or no experience in taking an onsen in the Japanese way and don’t know the do’s and don’t when taking an onsen. Let us teach you the Japanese way of taking an onsen.
- 1. Before the onsen
- 2. At the onsen
- 3. After the onsen
- Let’s take an onsen
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1. Before the onsen
Check the gender section by curtains
Onsen is usually separated into male and female sections. You can distinguish the sections by the curtains at the entrance. Often there is no English translation written on the curtains, but only Japanese 男/男性 (male) and 女/女性 (female). If you are lucky you can also recognise the section by the colour of the curtains; red for women and blue for men.
Take off your shoes before the dressing room
Onsen facilities are usually structured as follows entrance, reception, dressing room, bathing area and resting area. When you are at the front entrance, you need to take off your shoes and slippers here. When you find slippers placed at the entrance, you can wear them when you walk from reception and dressing room and back. Sometimes there is a designated area to place your shoes, for example lockers in dressing room or you give your shoes to the staff. If you don’t know how to handle your shoes, just copy what the Japanese are doing.
Take off all your clothes at the dressing room
Although swimsuits are allowed in some onsens, this is very rare. In most onsen, you take off all your clothes in the dressing room. Clothing and garment that are worn outside are considered sullied and should never be brought into an onsen. Nudity is a must for taking an onsen. You may feel embarrassed being naked, but actually you’ll find everyone is naked and everyone minds their own business. Nudity in an onsen is not embarrassing at all, in fact you will feel more embarrassed wearing a bathing suit. If you feel uncomfortable being naked, you can use your small towel to hide your nether regions when you moving from dressing room to bathing area and back again.
You might have heart of this but tattoos are still a taboo in Japan. Tattoos are associated with crime; back in the days, people who committed a crime were marked with a tattoo. Later, during the Edo period, many maffia gangs members marked themselves with tattoos to show their courage and pain endurance.
If you have a large tattoo, you will probably be rejected at most onsen. If you have got small tattoos, some onsen allow you to cover them. But if you have got many or big tattoos from head to toe, your best option is to book a private onsen through a ryokan. Some onsen such as Uramigataki Onsen in Tokyo and Funaoka Onsen in Kyoto are specifically geared for foreigners and more lenient when it comes to tattoo.
2. At the onsen
Wash your body first
The bathing area consists of two parts; the washing area and the onsen. You need to wash and rinse your body at the washing area first before getting in the bathtub. Facilities usually provide you with free shampoo, rinse and body soap. But you can also bring your own.
Don’t run or swim
You should not run and should walk slowly inside the bathing area because the floor may be very slippery. Moreover, you are not allowed to swim even if the onsen is big. The major purpose of taking an onsen is not only to wash the body but also to rest and relax so please enjoy the onsen in silence.
Do not soak your towel and hair in onsen
When you are taking onsen, you should not dip the towel in the water because towel is considered dirty. You can put the towel on your head so that you won’t lose it easily and not dirty the water at the same time. If you have long hair, you should tie back your hair to prevent it from dipping in the water.
Don’t take an onsen for too long
How relaxing it may be, don’t stay in the onsen for too long. You should get out the onsen when your forehead gets sweaty or if feel a little dizzy. Also, unless you have sensitive skin, you had better not wash your body after taking onsen in order to keep the components of onsen with you.
3. After the onsen
Wipe your body before entering changing room
Before entering the changing room, you should wipe yourself lightly with your small towel. After wiping your body completely with your bath towel, you can wear your own clothes or the yukata that you will find at most ryokan. A yukata is the bathing clothing, it looks similar to a kimono.
Stay and relax after your dip
After putting on your clothes or yukata, you can relax in the lounge area. From comfortable massage chairs and glasses of sake to small bars, these facilities are the cherries on top of the onsen cake. While relaxing in the lounge area, you should hydrate your body because you might have sweat (a lot) in onsen. The best way to hydrate is to drink a bottle of cold milk or yoghurt!
Let’s take an onsen
By taking an onsen, not only can you wash your body, but you can also relax and relieve your stress from study or work. If you want to have some local experience during your trip in Japan, you definitely need to try to take an onsen. It is the perfect relaxing ending to your busy sightseeing day. Even the snow monkeys in Nagano know it ;)
As we mentioned before, there are many onsen in Japan, both natural or man-made. You can choose the one you like. But if you don’t have any idea which onsen to go to, why don’t you join our Niigata 1-Day Customised Private Walking Tour?
In our Niigata 1-day tour, not only can you take the famous Senami Onsen, but you can also enjoy tasting high-grade Japanese sake and fresh seafood and learn about the Japanese history and culture at the old port-city Niigata. Since it is a customized tour, you can discuss with our professional tour guide and plan your own tour.
About the tour
Duration: 7 hrs ( 9am – 4pm )
Price: ¥35,000 per group
Capacity: 4 persons (If you would like more people, please let us know.)