Beginner’s guide to the Japanese onsen
Of all the ways to relax in the cultures around the world, Japan’s tradition of the onsen (温泉, hot spring bath) might be my favorite.
As such a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of hot springs. Where there’s a hot spring, there’s probably an onsen, and they come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and types. True, all onsen share a few aspects: individual shower stalls around the walls of the room, and one giant central, communal bath. Most all are marked by the kanji 湯, the hiragana character ゆ, the symbol ♨, or a combination of the three. Beyond that, there are dozens of varieties.
They range from huge, ritzy complexes to tiny neighborhood haunts that, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, could pass for just another house. You find them in the center of the huge bustling metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka and in the remote heights of the 日本アルプス (“Japanese Alps”), where the only sound is the bubbling of the water and the only light comes from traditional lanterns and the stars. Some are resplendent in tile, marble, and glass; some have old-fashioned iron or ceramic bathtubs. Some are indoor, vented only by a few windows, and some are noten-buro (野天風呂, outdoor). The waters of some onsen might reek of the rotten-eggs stench of sulfur, and still others feature black water. And some, in the most rural parts of Japan, have mixed-gender onsen, though most of these also offer a women-only bath.
Yes, it’s a bit unnerving to strip naked in front of strangers…at least at first. Once you realize this is just another Japanese custom, as inherent to the culture as using chopsticks, bowing, and taking your shoes off before entering a house, the shyness slips away. If anything, you become emboldened in your naked state. It becomes just another aspect of the experience as a whole, rather than the one that defines it. You realize no one is judging you or comparing their body to yours.
The first time my family heard about the onsen tradition and my affinity for it, one of my uncles turned to my mum in abject disbelief and asked, “When did she become such an exhibitionist?!” And the first time I’d ever gone to an onsen, I’d been with a group of about a dozen university classmates for a travel course on Japanese society. A few of the shyer girls had stuck to the showers in their room. Those of us who were brave enough, after being assured that no, it didn’t matter how uncomfortable we were, we could not wear our swimsuits, stole nervously into the baths. We devised a schedule of five-minute intervals to give each other enough time to wash quickly and then submerge ourselves in the bathwaters. Two weeks later, by the end of the trip, no one batted an eyelash when entering the bath en masse.
We’d begun to fall into the pattern of hadaka no tsukiai (裸の付き合い, “naked communion”), which the Japanese extol as one of the virtues of onsen. With literally nothing but water between you and another person, it’s easy to discuss the most personal, intimate topics. You’ll get to know someone far better when lounging in a hot spring bath in the middle of rural Japan than chatting over a few Starbucks lattes.
As with all traditional Japanese practices, there’s etiquette that has to be followed strictly. For a first-time traveler in Japan, it can be difficult to navigate the (steamy, comforting) waters of the onsen experience. The tips below can save heaps of embarrassment.
Stash your stuff.
Of course, you can’t bring your clothes into the bath with you. Instead, stow them in a basket available in the outer changing room outside of the bathroom. If you’re staying in a ryokan (旅館, traditional inn), you’ll probably be provided with a yukata (浴衣, cotton kimono). Wear it into the changing room, claim a basket, and change back into it once you’re done bathing.
Drop the swimsuit.
As I mentioned before, swimsuits — or clothing of any other kind — are strictly forbidden in an onsen. You best be fully naked in that bathroom…
Grab a modesty cloth.
…except for your modesty cloth, a tiny little scrap that you can use to cover yourself when entering or exiting the shower area or bath. However, you shouldn’t take it into the bathwater with you.
Scrub yourself raw.
When showering at the individual slots against the walls of the bathroom, many people go beyond the simple wash-shampoo-condition-rinse routine. Though most onsen provide you with body wash and shampoo, many people bring their own products, razors, loofahs, and pumice stones. An onsen is a place to treat yourself.
Don’t get the bath soapy.
Soap stays outside the bath, plain and simple. Getting the water in the communal bath soapy is one of the worst things you could do. Only enter the communal bath after you’re done showering and have completely rinsed yourself free of any product.
Cover tattoos where possible.
As a tattooed woman, this is where I tend to run into some difficulties. Many onsen forbid tattooed patrons into their baths, as tattoos are traditionally linked to the yakuza (やくざ, Japanese mafia). Even if you look like you’d be the last person to have criminal ties, or if your tattoo is innocuous and peaceful-looking, many onsen won’t allow you into the bath.
To circumvent this, a few of my tattooed cohorts and I have bandaged ourselves up to cover our inked skin. Obviously, depending on the extent and placement of your tattoos, that can get pretty awkward.
Take a post-soak rinse.
Onsen waters are hot, usually between 40 and 44 degrees Celsius. After a good long soak, you can get a bit sticky and sweaty. A quick rinse or rewash after exiting the bath ensures you’ll truly feel clean.
This isn’t so much an etiquette aspect as it is common sense: Going into an onsen while even slightly tipsy isn’t a good idea. All that hot water and steam, coupled with intoxication, can result in feeling dangerously lightheaded very quickly. Save the sake until after the bath, when your muscles feel like overcooked noodles, your bones are loose in your frame, and you’ve cocooned yourself comfortably in your futon.
Bonus: My favorite onsen
The open-air facility in Yagen Valley in Shimokita, the most remote part of Aomori prefecture, on a chilly October afternoon.