Helpful tips for foreigners visiting Japanese onsen

Helpful tips for foreigners visiting Japanese onsen

by Lucio Maurizi
Live Japan

Onsen in Japan, as hot springs are known, are a highly popular destination for locals and visitors alike. Their relaxing hot waters are steeped in tradition, and onsen are considered a must-do when visiting the Land of the Rising Sun.

But how exactly to take an onsen in Japan? What are some of the best areas for onsen in Japan? What are some tips for enjoying them? Join us as we enter the world of relaxing, soothing waters!

What is an onsen? What is the difference between 'onsen' and 'sento'?

Literally, onsen means “hot spring.” In fact, these are natural hot water baths rich in beneficial minerals. Onsen come in many types, two popular ones being roten-buro, outdoor baths, and noten-buro, indoor baths.

Meanwhile, a sento is a public hot bath, but not attached to a natural spring. Among sento, there are also the so called “super sento” that tend to be more elegant and offer a variety of saunas, baths, and other services.

How to spot an onsen

Onsen are not hard to see, once you know what to look for. They often have long drapes (noren) at the entrance and are marked by a “hot bath” symbol - ♨ or the character 湯/ゆ.

Sento also look similar at glance, but an onsen would usually be in more rural areas, as they are always close to a source of naturally hot water.

While it’s not impossible to find an onsen in large metropolitan areas, if you see the “hot bath” symbol in a city, it’s likely marking a sento, as opposed to an onsen.

How to Onsen: Before entering the facility

"Onsen" can refer both to the hot spring itself and the surrounding facilities - often part of a hotel or resort. If you are making a day trip of things and have not made a reservation, you can usually pick up a ticket either from a vending machine or a person right near the building's entrance.

Note that some facilities will ask you to remove your street shoes at the entrance and will have a locker or shelf available for them. For other facilities, you might remove your shoes right before getting into the bathing area itself. The rule of thumb here is to see what others are doing and ask the staff when in doubt.

Also, if you have luggage with you, you may ask the staff whether they can store the bags temporarily at the desk. Generally, it is advisable not to bring many bags unless you will be staying overnight.

Prepare for your onsen: The changing room

  1. Watch your feet - Upon entering most onsen, you’ll need to take off your shoes. Occasionally that is not the case, but you’ll always need to do so before entering the changing rooms.
  2. Don’t linger by the entrance – Especially if it’s the first time for you to see an onsen, the scene can be quite cool. Make sure, though, that you don’t linger by the entrance. Other people might be needing to get in or out. In Japan, physical contact is usually avoided among strangers, and when people stand by the entrance of the bath area, it feels almost like a violation of other patrons’ personal space (all of this while everybody is wearing only their “birth clothes”).
  3. Prepare to get naked – Clothes, swimming suits, or large towels of any kind are not allowed in the bath area. Don’t fret! No one will notice, and you’ll blend right in! You can leave all your belongings in the lockers in the changing room.

Make sure you bring a small towel with you but don’t worry if you can’t. Onsen usually allow you to use their clean towels - but it may be a paid service. Check at the entrance to the facility.

You can take the small towel with you in the bath area, but note you can’t enter the water with it.

Before entering the onsen bath itself

Wash yourself off – while you will notice that some people rinse themselves before entering a bath (and shower afterward), it’s customary (and polite) to thoroughly wash oneself before entering the bath. If you used your own soaps, make sure you leave them tucked neatly by the shower so as not to bother other patrons.

Onsen etiquette & tips: Before and after your Japanese-style bath

Along with all the above, some unwritten rules can often evade those who don’t go to an onsen (or sento) frequently.

  1. Let’s nobody splash – When you enter the bath, don’t jump, dive, or splash in it. Just sit and enjoy it (you definitely will).
  2. Don’t use your phone in the changing room – avoiding taking pictures and videos is pretty common sense, but also the use of your phone within the changing room (and of course the bath area) is forbidden or, best case scenario, heavily frowned upon. If you must use your mobile device, extend your arms all the way within your locker and use it like that.
  3. Tie hair in a nice, neat, knot – If you have long hair, make sure you tie it carefully after you shower.
  4. Mind your surroundings – showers in onsen are usually quite close to one another. For this reason, it’s important to be careful not to splash other people with water or soap. You’ll be glad others will do the same!
  5. More rinsing – some onsen will have, by the entrance, a large tub of hot water. You can use it to rinse yourself before or after entering a bath (or anytime you want to) by scooping up water with a bucket.
  6. Keep that water flowing – while in the bath area, rinse yourself every time you move from one bath to another. Some places also have saunas. If you use the sauna, also rinse yourself before entering a bath.
  7. Avoid grooming – Some locals might shave their beard in the bath area while showering, but generally, it’s customary to avoid any kind of grooming.
  8. Hey, I’m up here – In order to maintain an atmosphere that is comfortable and enjoyable for everyone, patrons tend to avoid looking (however briefly) at other patrons. It’s hard sometimes to maintain a mile-long stare in front of you when you are in a particularly beautiful place, but make sure you avoid looking (or worse yet staring) at anyone.
  9. Keep the chatting low – Onsen are social environments, but they are also a place where people go relax and soothe themselves in healthy waters and quietness. It’s definitely ok to chat with your friends and family while enjoying your bath, but make sure to do so at a low volume.

Onsen how to and etiquette – after the bath

  1. Dry yourself - When you’re done with the bath area, you should not enter the changing room dripping wet. It can sound tricky (and it is), since the only towel you’re allowed in the bath is a very small one, but try to dry yourself best you can with it.
  2. Clean up – if you used buckets to wash yourself, and stools to sit on, make sure you also wash those before leaving.
  3. Can I sit here? – if there are chairs of benches in the changing area, you can use them only after you’ve put some clothes on.

Onsen Etiquette – FAQ

Can I drink alcohol in the bath area?
You are not allowed to drink alcohol in the bath area. You can in the lobby, but for several reasons (including health risks), it’s prohibited to do so while bathing.

You should, though, hydrate after you’re done with some beverages Japanese people traditionally drink after a hot bath, such as coffee and milk or fruits au lait. 

What if I have tattoos?
It’s technically prohibited to use onsen (or sento) if you have tattoos, but you will find that if you inform the staff beforehand that you have tattoos, they will likely let you use the facilities.

Most public places such as gyms, swimming pools, and saunas don’t allow tattoos, but things in Japan are changing, and there’s a lot of pressure on the government by establishment owners and from the ministry of tourism to change the law.

Most onsen are ahead of the government in this matter and don’t mind tattooed patrons. 

I’d like to go to an onsen but it’s that time of the month...
Women are advised against using an onsen while indisposed.

Are there different kinds of onsen?
There are! It all depends on the water source that the onsen is attached to. There are waters with different minerals and properties, all with different beneficial effects. Also, there are baths with very hot water (which most people prefer to the regular ones, albeit for a very short time). On average, onsen water is between 38 and 43 degrees Celsius (98-100 Fahrenheit), but you can find onsen that have baths with temperatures well over 48-50 degrees Celsius.

What kinds of areas can be found at an onsen?
At an onsen, you will typically find an indoor bath tub, a big open-air bath tub (called a rotenburo), and a place for washing, with soap and shampoo products that guests can use for free. Some onsen may additionally have facilities like a a cool-water bath or a sauna.

What areas of Japan are most famous for onsen?

Kusatsu – Gunma: This is arguably one of the most famous “onsen towns” in Japan. Not too far from Tokyo, this area is an onsen resort with tens of baths, some of which are even free (and managed by the city or the community).

Hakone – Kanagawa: Hakone is the most famous onsen resort among those around Tokyo. You will be able to enjoy soothing baths and the boiling sulphur springs of Owakudani Valley. And don’t miss the beautiful Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, and one of the most iconic views of Mount Fuji as well as many shrines and a boat tour on Lake Ashi.

Kurokawa – Oita: Kurokawa is a beautiful small town to journey on foot. With nature all around, and with beautiful wooden buildings, it transpires culture and history. Many of its baths are open-air, making it a very sought after location for onsen. Some of its smaller ones are also the most historically important, located by the Kumamoto Castle, and dating back to the feudal era when many lords used to enjoy them.

Noboribetsu – Hokkaido: Noboribetsu is known for its “Hell Valley” (Jigokudani), a characteristic volcano crater which gives onsen waters unique characteristics. Sitting in a setting straight from a fantasy book, demon statues decorate the city center and rural paths take you through the Noboribetsu Primeval Forest and to amazing views of Lake Kuttara.

Via Live Japan

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