Learn how to onsen in Japan. Read on for Japanese onsen etiquette, onsen rules, and onsen Do’s and Don’ts. A must-read article for anyone planning to onsen in Japan.
If you want to know what onsen is or what does onsen mean you better skip to this article first. Then head right back when you are ready to strip off and take the plunge.
How to use onsen
Kyushu has some of the best onsen in Japan. You have to try one at least one onsen spa while you are here. Here are a few simple onsen tips (we can call them ‘onsen rules‘ I guess) to help you enjoy your experience:
Remember your shoes
Take your shoes off at the entrance. You’ll have to put them on a shelf or in a locker depending on which onsen you visit. Just follow what other people do. From there you probably have to pad around in socks though some places will have slippers.
Pay before you enter. In some onsen you pay cash to the staff behind the counter. Other places will have a ticket machine. Buy your ticket first then give it to the staff. Tip: Keep some small change handy even after you paid. You might need a ¥100 coin for the locker in the changing room. You may want to grab a cold drink from the vending machine inside.
How much does an onsen cost?
Of course it varies place to place. If you are staying in a ryokan (Japanese hotel) using the onsen there will be free. If you using a public onsen or using the bath in a ryokan as a non-resident you can expect to pay ¥500-¥1000. If you didn’t bring your own towel you can expect to pay extra at most places.
Onsen and Tattoo
Don’t go into an onsen with a tattoo. Usually, but not always, tattoo are a big no-no in onsen in Japan.If you have a small tattoo you can cover it with a sticking plaster. You can also buy specialist plaster to cover tattoo here. There are some tattoo friendly onsen but you need to check first.
Tattoo and Family Bath
Another solution if you want to onsen with a tattoo is to use a ‘family bath’. A family bath is a private bathing area within an onsen resort. You can go inside and lock the door so nobody can see if you have a tattoo. This family onsen is the easiest solution if your tattoo is too big to cover with a plaster. There are however some drawbacks of using a family bath. For a start, not all onsen have a private bath. Also there may be an additional charge to use a family bath. Finally your time may be limited and you might have to book your time-slot in advance.
An onsen towel isn’t very big. At approximately 80 x 35cm (30 x 15 inch) they are just big enough to cover your embarrassment. Take one with you or rent one while you are there. I take two. One that gets wet from steam in the bathing area and one that stays dry in the changing room. Use it while you walk around if you feel shy about your nudity. From my experience men dangle it casually in front of the crotch area. My wife reports women either use it lengthwise to cover both breast and crotch area or use the towel to cover their crotch and hands to cover their breasts. The bold ones of either sex don’t give a damn. They carry their towel on their heads or in their hands. Shy or not never put your onsen towel in the bath. Keep it on your head or next to the pool. Lots of people collect onsen bath towels as souvenirs. They are often printed with the onsen logo. The well-traveled onsen lover may have 100’s of different ones. Really, you should only keep the towel if you stay in the onsen resort as an overnight guest. If you bathe as a visitor you are supposed to give them back.
In the changing room
When you are inside the onsen follow these steps:
Strip naked and put your clothes in the locker (if there is one) or on a basket on the shelf. Yes, you have to strip naked. You can’t use swimsuit or underwear. Use the small towel to casually hang in front of you.
Take off your watch and any jewellery and leave it with your stuff in the changing room. They can get get damaged by the natural chemicals in the onsen water.
Tip: There will be a toilet in the changing room but usually not in the bathing area. Use the toilet before you start bathing so you don’t have to come inside dripping wet to take a pee.
Don’t take a phone, a camera, a glass bottle or a book into the bathing area. You can take a plastic bottle with drink though there is usually a drinking water fountain.
Lots of people take their own soap and shampoo and shaving stuff in a small basket. I never bother because soap and shampoo is provided and I’m not brand-fussy.
If you want to shave or clean your teeth bring these items with you. You don’t usually find them inside (though you can buy them at the entrance). The only place you commonly see them inside is at hot baths in capsule hotels.
In the bathing area
Red Alert: don’t get into the bathing pool until you washed yourself first at the washing area. This is the Number One Rule.
There are two options:
- Wash, soap and rinse yourself completely (and wash your hair) before starting bathing.
- Especially in winter, some people (like me) just get a quick rinse in the washing area before bathing. Then after getting nicely warmed up in the onsen bath get out again for the full monty wash, soap and rinse, before getting back in for another bathing session.
…. whichever method you use make sure that A) you carefully rinse off all soap and shampoo before getting in the onsen bath, and B) don’t splash the person next to you while you are washing or showering. For this reason well-mannered bathers (like us) never stand up while washing or showering.
Especially well-behaved bathers (that’s us again) will rinse off the little chair and bucket you used while washing and place the bucket upside down on the chair. That shows you are a real Onsen Pro.
What about your specs?
I always wear my glasses (spectacles) inside the onsen but you may decide not to because it’s a bit of a hassle. They steam up of course. Tip: rub some liquid soap onto them and rinse to stop them steaming up so much. There isn’t anywhere to put them if you take them off to wash or bathe. You just have to find some small nook or random ledge. At some stage I almost always forget where I put them and have to blunder around half-blind trying to find them. Don’t take them into the sauna either. They’ll melt and/or burn your nose. Sometimes there is special shelf outside the sauna to put your glasses but usually not.
Author’s grumble: if I ever own a sauna I’ll make better provision for glasses-wearers. It’s a weak point of the current system in my humble opinion.
In the onsen bath
Don’t jump, dive, or splash around. Don’t move quickly causing waves. It’s a relaxing pool, right? Not a swimming pool.
Don’t put your hair or towel in the water. Less polite people than me and you sometimes do but we don’t want to behave like them do we? You can leave your towel at the edge of the pool somewhere or be super-unfashionable and keep it on your head while bathing. That’s what all the old guys do anyway.
Based on my previous experience don’t stay in really hot water too long. If you stand up too quickly you can get dizzy and topple over Pro Tip: Avoid dizziness by splashing yourself with cold water before getting into the bath.
If it’s an outside bath, or if you come from an outside bath to an indoor one, use the water from the bath to rinse your feet before getting in. You don’t want to bring bits of twig or mud into the pool do you?
If you come from the sauna rinse yourself off (no need to soap again) before getting in the bath. Who wants to bathe in your sweat? Author grumble: (nothing to do with onsen) loads of people seem to forget this in my gym when they go from the sauna into the jacuzzi. I think it’s gross.
Finally, dry yourself a bit with your towel before going into the changing room so you don’t drip all over the floor.
Drinking in onsen
Don’t get drunk. There was a craze a few years ago of celebrities drinking sake and then having heart attacks in onsen. It’s pretty slippy too. In many onsen drinking alcohol is forbidden. I have to admit in my drinking days I’d often sneak a can of ice-cold beer in (just one). You shouldn’t though, so do as I say not as I did.
Wow! I’ve made it sound like a minefield of rules. It isn’t really. Perhaps I got carried away a bit. The main thing is to be hygienic and respect those around you. If you’re not sure, just do what the others around you are doing. To balance all those nagging rules read on to find out what you should do in an onsen.
What to do in an onsen (how to enjoy)
Really enjoy it and take your time. You’ve worked like a dog at the office and you deserve it. An onsen spa is meant to be a long, relaxing, rejuvenating experience. Don’t rush. You’ll want to get your money’s worth anyway.
Move around from bath to bath
I’ll start with a quick wash down. You’ll remember that we never bathe dirty, right? Then I’ll have a long soak in the main bath. I mean, I’ll stay in there as long as I can stand it until I get really hot. I like to feel the day’s stresses and strains melting away. I also like to think of myself as healing. Don’t forget, onsen waters are healing waters. They come from deep underground and are rich in minerals. The Japanese have known for hundreds of years the healing properties of different kinds of onsen. You probably won’t be able to understand it (I don’t) but on the wall of most onsen you will find a sign saying which specific minerals those waters are rich with and what they are best at curing. I’ve had dodgy knees for years and definitely feel a good soak does me good.
After getting nicely warmed up I’ll have a mooch around to see what other baths are available.
My favourite places will have a lot; a couple of hot baths of different temperatures, a bubbling sauna bath, a sauna and steam room. Perhaps even a salt sauna too. You will come out of a salt sauna with your skin feeling just like a baby. Make sure you don’t get it in your eyes though. I should warn the guys too, from personal experience, not to get it on your personal bits either (it stings like hell). If there is an icy cold pool I love moving from sauna to the ice pool and back again a couple of times. I feel it really does me good. It’s meant to be great for the circulation.
How to bathe in the icy pool
As someone who spent years (in my past life as a scuba Instructor) diving in the coldest waters in the region I have some tips to share. The trick for getting into icy water is to control your breathing. Don’t let yourself start hyperventilating, but take long slow deep breaths. The other trick is to stop pussyfooting about. Just take the plunge and get right in there up to your neck straight away. You might feel some odd tingling and numbness but that’s all part of the fun. Stay in there as long as you can then straight to the sauna for a glorious warm up.
The outdoor bath (rotenburo)
I’ve left the best bit until last. At least it’s the best bit for me. There’s nothing I like better than enjoying an outdoor bath (rotenburo). Especially in winter I love to sit at the edge of the pool until I’m starting to get freezing cold and then lower myself right down up to my neck into the toasty warm waters. Then repeat. Heavenly. If you can have a view of snow-capped peaks it’s just about as good as it gets.
I’ll normally do my washing with soap, my scrub and my shampoo, towards the end after I’ve sweated like crazy in the sauna. Then I’ll do one more long slow soak in the warm bath and I’m done. It’s back to the changing room (don’t forget to dry yourself first) to change into the fresh clothing I bought. There’s nothing worse than changing back into the dirty old clothes you arrived in.
The electric bath (denkiburo)
Just as it sounds it’s a bath with electricity pulsing through. If you enjoy bathing with a weird and unsettling tingling sensation then it’s for you. They say it cures rheumatism, stiff shoulders and a sore back. Once was enough for me but you might want to give it a try.
The end bit
We are not quite done yet. After you dry off and change back into your clothes don’t rush off. Grab yourself a cold drink (beer or otherwise) then head to the relaxing room. Most onsen will have a relaxing area you can chill out. You might be able to get a meal there too. It’s usually with tatami straw mat floor, just perfect for that post-onsen nap …
We hope you found these how to onsen tips and etiquette information useful. If you have any other questions, comments, tips or advice for fellow travellers add them here.