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How to onsen in Japan like a local

Jacqui in the Onsen in Japan

You can’t visit Japan without diving into a unique cultural experience like an onsen.

On our trip to Japan in March 2016, we were lucky enough to stay at a traditional ryokan (guest house) in the Japanese Alps which featured an indoor and outdoor onsen. And, it was spectacular! I highly recommend it.

Onsen is the Japanese term for hot springs but it can often refer to the bathing facilities and inns housing the natural hot springs that are scattered throughout the volcanically active country. There are some small villages known as onsen towns, such as Shibu Onsen near Nagano. Traditional onsen towns are full of people strolling the streets in yukata (casual kimono) and geta (wooden clogs) and are reminiscent of past centuries.

Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places for locals. Today, they are considered a unique cultural experience for both domestic and international tourists.

Before you experience the relaxing and healing powers of an onsen, it’s best to know the etiquette and rules. If you go in unprepared, it can be quite intimidating!

Here is a detailed guide on how to onsen in Japan like a local:

What you need to know before you enjoy an onsen

You will be naked. As naked as the day you were born. (No swimming suits are allowed.)

Men and women bathe separately. The male entrance is often marked with blue curtains and this character “男”. The female entrance is usually marked with red or pink curtains and this character “女”.

There are some dedicated communal onsen where both women and men can bathe together – always check before entering!

You will be provided with a small towel (usually no longer than 40cm in length) that you can use to cover your genitals and breasts while entering and exiting the bath. Do no put the towel in the bath. Instead, place your towel on your head or on the side of the bath while you are bathing.

Some ryokans will provide you with a yakuta, a traditional and simple garment worn after bathing in an onsen and during your stay inside the ryokan. (And, sometimes for walks out on the streets of an onsen town).

Drink water before and after bathing in an onsen to prevent dehydration. (Avoid alcohol and too much food before entering the bath.)

Sweating is a sign of overheating. Avoid bathing for extended amounts of time (more than 10 minutes) or more than three times a day. Watch your temperature while you are in the bath and get out if you start to feel ill. Stand up slowly to avoid fainting.

Some jewellery, watches and glasses can be damaged or discoloured by the minerals in the water.

The water may be slightly discoloured or dirty looking. This is simply the natural minerals in the hot water.

Some onsens will provide soap, shampoo, body lotion and a hairdryer for guests after their bath.

Do not put your head under water. Tie up long hair to prevent it dripping in the water.

Do not take books or magazines into the onsen.

Do not take photos or video in the onsen.

Do not smoke in the onsen.

Sometimes people with tattoos are not allowed in communal baths because of the association between tattoos and the Japanese Yakuza mafia. If you have a tattoo, please check with the operator before entering the onsen.

A yukata and modesty cloth

A yukata and modesty cloth

How to onsen in 10 easy-to-follow steps

  1. Enter the onsen (through the correct door!).
  2. Remove your shoes. (Some onsens do not allow shoes to be worn into the changing area.)
  3. Remove all of your clothes and place them in the basket or locker provided in the changing area.
  4. Use the showers or the washbowls to wash/rinse your body before entering the bath. Washing is usually done in a crouching position beside the bath or sitting on the stools provided. Start by washing your feet and shins, followed by your legs and body. Avoid splashing other bathers and rinse your wash area after you are finished.
  5. Walk slowly from the washing area to the bath (to avoiding slipping on the wet floor) and enter the bath slowly so that your body has time to adjust to the temperature (usually 40 – 45 degrees Celsius). Greet and be friendly to others.
  6. Enjoy your relaxing bath!
  7. When bathing and soaking, it is common to get in and out several times, and even to rinse or wash between soaks. You can also sit on the side of the bath and dangle only your feet in the water.
  8. When you exit the bath, dry yourself with your modesty towel before walking on tatami flooring mats and entering the change room.
  9. It is up to you whether you do a thorough wash when you are finished in the bath. It is sometimes better not to rise off after the bath to obtain the full effect of the minerals in the water.
  10. Retrieve your belongings from you locker and dress before you exit the onsen. Remember to rehydrate!
Changing rooms

Changing and wash rooms

Looking for more tips for your visit to Japan?

Read about our Journey to Japan and get some tips on what to see and do:

Culture Shock: reflections on my first day in Japan

Three days in Tokyo: a tantalising taste of Japan

Year of the (Japanese Snow) Monkey: visiting Japanese macaques at the Jigokudani National Park

Follow @jacquitravels on Twitter and Instagram, and Never Ending Honeymoon on Facebook for live holiday updates and photos.

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