A woman in an onsen

A woman in an onsen

Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring bath where people soak for relaxation and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of mineral-rich waters.

An onsen experience in Japan provides a meaningful journey into the country’s cultural past. These ancient hot spring pools, recognized for their medicinal abilities, have been an intrinsic part of Japanese culture for generations. Aside from relaxing, onsen visits encourage a strong connection to nature and communal togetherness.

Onsen bathing traditions show Japanese concern for cleanliness, quiet, and the pursuit of inner peace, making it a prized component of the country’s cultural character.

Why you should try onsen in your Japan visit

When visiting Japan, visiting an onsen should be at the top of your list of things to do. Onsen, or traditional hot spring pools, provide a one-of-a-kind and enlightening cultural experience that connects you with the country’s rich legacy and natural beauty. Japan is endowed with a huge network of geothermal springs, each having its own unique mineral composition and medicinal effects.

Onsen bathing provides a refreshing and immersive trip into Japanese customs, whether you want relaxation, stress alleviation, or relief from minor ailments. Aside from the medicinal effects, onsen visits encourage a sense of serenity and mindfulness, allowing you to detach from the fast-paced world and find inner harmony in the midst of gorgeous natural landscapes.

Onsen
Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring spa used for relaxation and healing; it is a peaceful experience in embracing nature.

Furthermore, onsen culture is strongly embedded in Japanese society, and participating in this tradition teaches you the value of cleanliness, respect for others’ privacy, and a deep connection with nature.

The experience will be unforgettable whether you choose an outdoor rotenburo with spectacular mountain views or a luxurious onsen resort. Consider adding an onsen experience to your Japan schedule, and you’ll feel refreshed and revived and have a better understanding and appreciation for the country’s cultural history.

Common onsen mistakes tourists make

Tourists visiting an onsen in Japan can sometimes unintentionally make inevitable mistakes due to unfamiliar customs and etiquette. Here are some common onsen mistakes to avoid:

Improper washing

Not washing thoroughly before entering the onsen is a common mistake. It’s essential to rinse and cleanse your body correctly at the washing stations before entering the bath to keep the water clean and maintain hygiene.

Wearing swimsuits

Wearing swimsuits in onsen is not allowed in most traditional establishments. Some tourists might not be aware of this cultural norm and might attempt to wear swimsuits, which can cause discomfort for themselves and others.

Using a modesty towel in the bath

Placing the modesty towel in the bathwater is a mistake. The small towel should be used for modesty while walking around but should be kept outside the bath area when soaking to avoid contaminating the water.

Taking Photos

Using cameras or mobile phones in the bathing areas is considered impolite and intrusive. Taking photos or selfies in the onsen can make other guests uncomfortable and disrupt the serene atmosphere.

Talking loudly

Onsen is meant to be a place of relaxation and tranquility. Speaking loudly or making noise can disturb others trying to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere.

Overstaying in the bath

Spending too much time in the onsen can be considered inconsiderate to other visitors waiting for their turn to use the baths.

A woman in an onsen
A woman in an onsen

The suggested length of stay in an onsen varies depending on personal preference and the specific guidelines of the onsen. In general, soaking for 10 to 15 minutes is recommended. However, depending on their comfort level and the water temperature, some people may stay longer or shorter.

Not abiding by gender segregation

Some tourists might mistakenly enter the wrong gender-segregated bathing area, causing discomfort and confusion for other bathers.

Using soap or shampoo in the bath

Using soap, shampoo, or any other products inside the bath is discouraged, as it disrupts the natural mineral balance of the water.

Not hydrating properly

Onsen water is often hot, and soaking for an extended period can lead to dehydration. Tourists should remember to stay hydrated by drinking water before and after the bath.

Misunderstanding tattoo policies

Some onsens have policies regarding guests with visible tattoos due to cultural associations with organized crime. Tourists with tattoos should inquire about the onsen’s policy beforehand to avoid any discomfort or refusal of entry.

Top onsen manners and etiquette for first-timers

Washing ritual

Before entering the onsen, use the provided washing stations to cleanse your body thoroughly. This step is crucial to removing sweat, dirt, and cosmetics, ensuring the bathwater remains clean and hygienic for all guests. Use the soap provided and rinse your body thoroughly before proceeding to the bathing area.

Nude bathing

One of the distinctive aspects of onsen culture is bathing in the nude. Swimsuits are generally not allowed in traditional onsen. Embrace this custom as a way to experience the authentic Japanese bathing tradition and to focus on relaxation without any inhibitions.

Use of modesty towel

You can use a small towel for modesty while walking around the onsen area. However, this towel should not be placed in the bathwater. Instead, neatly fold it and place it on your head, shoulder, or the side of the bath. The towel should be kept dry and clean for later drying off after bathing.

Tattoo consideration

Some onsen establishments may have restrictions on guests with visible tattoos. This practice stems from the association of tattoos with the yakuza (organized crime groups). If you have huge tattoos that are difficult to cover, it’s best to inquire about the onsen’s policy beforehand to avoid any potential discomfort or refusal of entry.

Maintain a quiet atmosphere

Onsen places great emphasis on tranquility and relaxation. Engage in hushed conversations or maintain silence while in the bathing area. Avoid making loud noises, and keep your mobile phone silent to preserve the peaceful ambiance for all guests.

Respect privacy

In gender-segregated onsen, be mindful of personal space. Refrain from staring or making others uncomfortable while changing or bathing. It’s essential to respect other guests’ privacy, just as you would expect them to respect yours.

Observe bathing time

Onsen baths are meant for short, refreshing soaks rather than extended sessions. Limit your time in the bath to about 10-15 minutes to allow other visitors to enjoy the onsen as well. If you wish to continue bathing, take a break outside the water and re-enter later.

Temperature check

Many onsen feature different baths with varying water temperatures. The temperature of onsen can vary, but it typically ranges from 37°C to 42°C (98°F to 108°F). If the water feels too hot, take your time to acclimate by dipping your feet first and gradually immersing yourself. This way, you can enjoy the full therapeutic benefits without discomfort.

Stay hydrated

The hot water in onsen can cause dehydration. Drink water before and after bathing to stay hydrated, especially if you plan to spend an extended period in the baths. Most onsen provide drinking water stations for this purpose.

No swimsuits in the onsen

Unlike Western-style hot springs or pools, wearing swimsuits is generally prohibited in traditional Japanese onsen. Bathing in the nude is deeply rooted in the cultural significance of onsen and is considered a communal experience that fosters bonding and relaxation.

Shower before entering

Thoroughly rinse your body at the washing stations before stepping into the onsen. This process helps maintain the water’s cleanliness and ensures you enter the bath clean and refreshed. Use the provided soap and shampoo if necessary, and rinse off thoroughly before entering the bathing area.

No cameras or phones

To preserve the privacy and serenity of the onsen experience, avoid using cameras or mobile phones in the bathing areas. Taking photos or using devices might make other guests uncomfortable and disrupt the tranquil atmosphere.

Follow onsen rules

Each onsen facility may have specific rules or guidelines, usually posted in the changing or bathing area. Take a moment to read and understand these rules to ensure a smooth and respectful experience for yourself and others.

Typical rules in onsen are the following:

  • Wash thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • No swimsuits allowed; bathing is done naked.
  • Keep voices low to maintain a peaceful atmosphere.
  • No diving or splashing in the water.
  • Please refrain from using towels in the bath (use them outside).
  • Avoid bringing soap or shampoo into the bath.
  • Cover tattoos, as some places might have restrictions.
  • Follow the facility’s guidelines on gender separation.
  • Do not immerse your towel in the communal bath.
  • Respect others’ privacy and personal space.

Respect bathing order

Some onsen, particularly smaller ones or those with limited space, may have designated bathing order rotations to accommodate all guests. Observe and follow these bathing orders to avoid overcrowding and maintain the harmony of the bathing experience.

Keep quiet areas

Many onsen have designated relaxation areas where guests can rest and unwind after bathing. These areas are intended for quiet contemplation and relaxation. Respect others’ need for silence and avoid loud conversations or activities that might disturb others in these spaces.

Mind personal belongings

To keep the onsen area tidy and safe, use the provided lockers or baskets to store your belongings while bathing. Avoid leaving items around the bathing area to prevent accidents or confusion.

Avoiding alcohol

It’s best to avoid consuming alcohol before or during your onsen visit. Alcohol can dehydrate you, and combining it with the heat of the onsen might lead to discomfort or even fainting. Onsen is meant to be a soothing experience, so save the drinks for later.

Hair ties and caps

If you have long hair, it’s considerate to tie it up before entering the onsen to prevent it from touching the water. Some onsen might also provide bathing caps for guests to use to keep their hair away from the bathwater.

Shampooing outside bath

Refrain from shampooing or using soap inside the bath itself. Onsen water is meant to be kept clean and free of chemicals. Use the designated washing stations for shampooing and soaping, and ensure you rinse off all products thoroughly before entering the bath.

Proper body position

When sitting in the onsen, be mindful not to splash or disturb the water excessively. Sit comfortably and maintain a respectful distance from other bathers to allow everyone to enjoy the onsen comfortably.

Use of “Sayonara” towel

Leave your modesty towel outside the bath area as you enter the onsen. Placing it inside the water can contaminate the bath and disrupt the onsen experience for others. When you’re done bathing, use the towel to pat yourself dry before leaving the bathing area.

Photo credit: Japanexperterna