Onsen is a prominent part of Japanese culture. It is a place where people find relief from the stresses of daily living; a short, serene escape. Some sit in solitary, quiet contemplation, while others take the chance to commune and connect with friends and family. 

Enjoyed by hundreds of generations of people, visiting an onsen is almost a ritual. It’s not as simple as stripping naked and dipping yourself in the water; there are many customs and rules to be observed. 

Shima outdoor onsen
Shima onsen. | Credit: Concreteplayground.com

We’ve put together a guide to help you get the most out of your Japanese onsen experience and save you from embarrassment or potentially posing a danger to yourself or others.

What is a Japanese onsen?

Credit: Concreteplayground.com

An onsen (温泉) is a natural Japanese hot spring. Due to the volcanic activities underneath Japan, spring water is geothermally heated, forming hot springs.

Onsen has also come to be associated with baths filled with natural hot spring water, where people go to soak their stress away. They are either public baths operated by municipalities or private baths that are often part of an accommodation, usually a hotel, ryokan or minshuku.

People visit an onsen more for the purpose of health and wellness. The nutrient-rich water is said to have healing properties and the experience also helps visitors to relax.

Is sento the same as onsen?

No. Sento (銭湯) literally translates into “money” and “hot water”. It refers to a public bathhouse that uses artificially heated water. In other words, you’re buying hot water for a more practical purpose of cleaning yourself.

A Kumamon-themed Sento! | Credit: Japan-forward.com

Here’s a brief history of onsen and sento.

Japanese onsen etiquette and safety

Health matters

While onsen is known for its health benefits, it can prove detrimental to people who may have health issues. You should not visit a Japanese onsen if you have:

  • Advanced rheumatoid arthritis
  • Colds or other acute illnesses, such as fever
  • Cancer, leukaemia, sarcoma
  • Communicable diseases, such as HIV or influenza
  • Diabetes
  • Heart diseases
  • High blood pressure or arteriosclerosis
  • Kidney diseases
  • Large vessel aneurysm
  • Lung diseases
  • A recent cerebral haemorrhage or gastroduodenal ulceration

Additionally, if you have open wounds, boils, sores or any conditions that may cause you to discharge blood, pus or any other bodily fluids, or any infectious disease, please DO NOT ENTER AN ONSEN.

As a general guide, as long as you’re unwell or have a pre-existing condition, check with your doctor if you can use an onsen.

Practice good hygiene

An onsen is not a large heated bathtub for you to clean yourself, so make sure you scrub yourself clean first before dipping into an onsen.

Ladies, take extra care

It’s best to avoid using the onsen when you’re menstruating because nobody wants to be soaking in your bodily fluids. If you have to, use a tampon, which also happens to be a good way to prevent shared bath water from entering the cervical opening and causing health problems.

Some of you may also experience dizziness if you visit the onsen during the heavier parts of your menstrual cycle. If you know you’re prone to faint spells, save everyone a heart attack and visit another day.

Pregnant ladies used to be banned from onsens, but the Japan Environment Ministry has since relaxed this rule. Nonetheless, if you’re pregnant, do check with your gynaecologist before visiting one.

No drinking

Soaking in hot water speeds up your blood circulation, just like alcohol does. When you put these two together, your blood flow goes into overdrive, placing strain on your heart. 

There is also the danger of cerebral anaemia as you exit the bath due to changes in blood pressure, which can lead to brain complications.

Birthday suits only!

Nope, not even your swimsuit. All onsen users are expected to be fully naked. However, you may use a small towel to cover the sensitive bits.

Don’t stare

It’s not a place to be admiring the wonders of the human body. Besides, if you’re at an outdoor onsen, you should be enjoying the scenery!

No cameras!

That’s unless you’d like to spend a few nights at the police station. However breathtaking the onsen is, do not take photos anywhere in the onsen.

Keep quiet

An onsen is a place to relax and enjoy the serenity. Nobody wants to be disturbed, so avoid talking and laughing loudly.

No running and playing

The floor may be slippery, so walk slowly and carefully. Do not chase your friends in the premise, splash water on them or swim in the bath.

Have tattoos?

Sign banning people with tattoos at an onsen. | Credit: Kashiwaya.org

Tattoos have been associated with yakuza gangs, which is why many onsens ban visitors with tattoos. But with more progressive mindsets, especially towards foreigners with tattoos, many onsens have relaxed this rule. You may even find onsens that welcome people with tattoos.

If you wish to visit an onsen that bans tattoos, your best bet is to cover up your ink with bandages. Even so, be prepared to be turned away at the door. Respect the Japanese culture and the decision of its people. Don’t argue with them, just look for another onsen.

A step-by-step guide to enjoying a Japanese onsen

Wooden pail at Japanese onsen
Credit: Pandanotabi WordPress blog

Be mentally prepared

You’ll have to be fully naked in the presence of others, but so will everyone else. They are just as self-conscious as you are. If you’re worried about the way you look, rest assured that there are visitors of all shapes and sizes. Not everyone looks like a Greek god or goddess.

The Japanese have a reputation for good personal hygiene, including shaving, but it’s not common for them to remove hair from their nether regions. If you do shave or wax down there, you may get some curious glances or comments. Those are nothing malicious, just not an everyday sight.

Bring some toiletries and towels

Most onsens provide body wash and shampoo, but if you are a stickler for quality toiletries, you’re better off bringing your own.

You’ll also need to have two towels – a bath towel and a hand towel would be great. The smaller towel is great for you to cover up your private bits as you shamble towards the bath, while the bath towel is for you to pat dry after the whole affair.  

Towel on bucket at onsen
Credit: Japantravel-centre.com

Keep your shoes in the locker

Shoe lockers are usually provided free-of-charge, so deposit your shoes in one of them, lock up and take the key with you.

Buy a ticket

If you’re putting up at a hotel, ryokan or minshuku with an onsen, you don’t have to buy a ticket to enter. 

Otherwise, purchase a ticket at the ticket machine or counter.

Rent or buy towels and yukata

Some accommodations prepare these items for you, so just remember to bring the towels along and put on your yukata.

If you didn’t bring your own towel, you may rent or buy from the onsen. Most onsens rent out yukata and some sell them too.

Exchange tickets

Go to the front desk and exchange your tickets for a locker key and any other items that you’ve rented or bought.

Go to the area designated for your gender

Look carefully and enter the right changing room.

Take off all your clothes and store your belongings

You can’t bring anything else into the bath except your naked self and a small hand towel. Leave everything else in your locker.

Relief yourself

Do not introduce your own additives into the bath. Empty your bladder.

Wash yourself

Remember: An onsen is a place to relax, not to wash your body of grime and dirt. So shower with body wash and shampoo first before entering the bath. You may dry yourself with the small hand towel and bring it with you to the bath.

Enjoy the onsen

Even the coolest bath may feel too hot at first, so sit by the edge of the bath and slowly ease your way in, starting with your feet. 

Woman slowly entering onsen
Credit: Japantravel-centre.com

Keep your towel away from the spring water by folding it and placing it on your head. If it does fall into the water, take it out quickly and wring it away from the bath.

If you have long hair, tie it up into a bun and never allow your hair to touch the water. This also means that you shouldn’t submerge your head in the water.

Woman soaking in onsen
Credit: Concreteplayground.com

You may soak for as long as you want, but soaking for too long can cause dizziness, so be aware of how your body is feeling and exit when you feel unwell. People typically spend 10-20 minutes per dip.

When you need to exit, do so slowly to prevent sudden changes in blood pressure, which may cause you to faint.

Keep yourself hydrated throughout the session, because heat exhaustion is more common than you think.

Dry yourself

After stepping out of the bath, dry yourself as much as possible with the towel on your head. If the towel gets too damp, wring it outside the bath, away from paths that people may take. Keep the place as dry as you can for the safety of others.

Scrub your body with an akasuri towel

An akasuri towel is an exfoliating bath towel that bathers use to slough away dead skin that has already been softened by soaking in the bath.

Skip the shower

People generally don’t shower after using the onsen to prolong the benefits of the nutrient-rich onsen water. 

But if you happen to use an onsen with water types that may be harsh for your skin, it may be a good idea to wash it off.

Before you leave the locker room, dry yourself with your bath towel and get dressed. Some onsens provide mirrors, hairdryers, moisturisers and more for your use.

Enjoy the fringe facilities

Kusatsu onsen
Credit: Shutterstock

Many Japanese onsens have other facilities, such as a sauna, lounge and restaurants, which you may enjoy before going back to your room or leaving the premises.