Japan travelers' onsen etiquette notes

Base Info

Japan travelers' onsen etiquette notes

by: Airman 1st Class Kenna Jackson, 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs | .
Public Affairs | .
published: January 26, 2013

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- As a traveler in Japan, there are a lot of memories you want to create, strange foods to try and unique traditions to witness or take part in. One of the most popular Japanese customs that draw tourists' eyes is the onsen or public bath.

In these bathing facilities, the water used to rejuvenate skin and ease tight muscles comes from natural hot springs created by this volcanically active country.

Before you set out to melt the tension from your body, there are simple etiquette rules you need to know. Following these easy tips can mean the difference between you blending in with the crowd or recounting another embarrassing tale of your misadventures.

The most important rules

One of the most important rules, you may come to appreciate is that hot springs are for soaking only, not cleaning. Before entering the hot water, it is necessary to wash completely from head to toe. To not do so is considered socially unacceptable. When bathing, you must sit on the stool and wash thoroughly. The wooden bucket is to pour water over yourself, which many women have found useful when washing their hair.

"Another important rule that is not posted but everyone knows, is that 'small towel rule'", said Miyuki Taneichi, 35th Force Support Squadron multicultural program instructor.

After bathing, you'll be given two towels, one of which is full-sized and used to dry off at the end of your time in the hot spring. Although the small towel may be taken into the hot springs with you, it cannot touch the water. The only purpose of the towel is to wipe the sweat off of your head and face, so never dunk or ring it out in the hot water. This is a big taboo in Japan and if you don't fancy being on the receiving end of multiple 'evil eyes', then you might want to remember that particular rule.

When not in use, the towel is most commonly folded on top of your head or, for women, wrapped around their hair to keep it out of the bath.

"Remember, the hot springs are used continuously by many people, so keeping it as clean as possible is the number one priority," said Taneichi.

After all, no one likes soaking in dirty water that smells like soap and has pieces of hair floating around, she added.

Be prepared

As every vacationer knows, being prepared is the best way to begin any journey. In this case though, most onsens provide towels, washcloths, soap and shampoo dispensers. However, if you are a 'better safe than sorry' person or have a preferred set of toiletries, there are lockers in the changing rooms for you. Unfortunately, you may have to pay extra for them.

Another thing you should prepare for is the lack of clothing in the hot springs. An onsen is a bath, and just as you would in you private tub, it is done in the nude. So, if you have any inhibitions about public nudity, it would be best to shed them in the locker room with your clothes.

The silver lining is your audience will be of the same gender as you, except for children who are welcomed in opposite sex baths when with parent or guardian, so you shouldn't get too embarrassed.

"Remind them that the onsen is not a playground or a heated swimming pool. It is a place for relaxation, meditation and quiet conversations with the person next to you," said Taneichi. "So, cannon balls, loud laughter and running around the bath area are prohibited."

Test the water

Onsens, especially the expensive ones, tend to have multiple baths with different temperatures. Some are warm or incredibly hot, while others can be freezing. So, if you want to avoid any unfavorable surprises, sticking a finger or toe in the water before slipping in is probably a good idea.

When you've found the right bath for you, kick back and relax. Everyone went through the same painstaking cleaning routine that you did, so you don't need to stress over somebody's dirty gym sock lint floating into your area. Just lean back, close your eyes and enjoy a good soak.

Powers of volcanic water

Everything about the onsen experience is about healing, therapy and peace. In Japan, because the hot springs are caused by the country's volcanic activity, it has long been believed that the water has healing powers. This is due to the mineral content and the high temperature of the water.

"It's because of this that the Japanese believe a good soak in a proper onsen heals aches, pains and diseases," said Taneichi.

Be cautious

Despite the rumored healing powers of onsens' water, bathers should be aware of their limitations. The heat from the hot water can leave you dehydrated and people have been known to faint from the extreme temperature.

"If you get too hot but don't want to leave the onsen, lower your temperature in a cooler bath. You are already clean, so switching baths is not only socially accepted but recommended," said Taneichi.


Along with being one of the top tourist attractions, onsens are also an ancient part of Japanese history. Although the design of an onsen can vary from several pools, waterfalls and outdoor tubs and the price range for a day of therapeutic relief can fluctuate from 200 to 2000 yen, these natural hot springs can be found almost anywhere in Japan. So, if you're looking for a breather after a long day, week or hour, just look for the sign with a loaf of bread with steam floating above it and enjoy an hour or two of luxury.

For more information on Japanese hot springs, contact Miyuki Taneichi, multicultural program instructor, in the Airman and Family Readiness Center at 226-4735.