One thing you must definitely do when coming to Japan (日本) is visiting this heavenly place called Onsen (温泉) in Japanese.
Basically, all of Japan lies above a giant ring of volcanos, which is why these hot spring baths can be found pretty much anywhere throughout the country.
Mount Fuji (富士山), the highest mountain of Japan and one of its sacred symbols, is a volcano as well.
So, regardless of where you go in Japan, if you look around a little you are sure to find one of these baths somewhere in the area.
Now you might ask yourself: But how do I visit an Onsen without totally embarrassing myself? There are bound to be some special rules to go about this, right?
Things to know about an Onsen
Fear not, this is what this article was designed for. I will take you through the process step-by-step. Don’t worry, it’s really not too hard! And since you are a foreigner, minor mistakes are easily forgiven by the locals.
The Japanese are pretty sensitive about this one specific topic when it comes to their baths: tattoos.
If you have a tattoo, no matter the size, you will most likely not be able to enter a significant amount of the baths available.
The reasons behind the prohibition are mostly linked to the Yakuza and also traditions from the far-gone past, where tattoos were considered bad and were used to identify criminals.
While you should not face any problems with your tattoos anywhere else, for Onsen it is still a widely used rule.
But here’s the thing, more and more Onsen are getting rid of this rule, so if you search around, you will surely find one that allows tattoos.
Keep in mind that this prohibition only applies to public baths.
If you can afford a stay at a Ryokan (旅館) (Japanese-style hotels) that has private baths, you can enjoy those without any problems.
Okay, on to the guide!
Upon entering the Onsen you should first take off your shoes and get into a pair of slippers provided at the entrance. Head towards the reception. The receptionist will present you the possible options regarding length of stay, rental towels, coin lockers, etc.
If you want to save a few hundred Yen, make sure to bring your own towels and also soap to be safe. In every Onsen I have been so far, soap and shower utensils were provided for free but towels had to be rented for around 150 Yen (1,15€/$1.36 (exchange rates as of June 2018)). But I have heard of baths, probably older ones, where you need to bring your own soap as well.
There are two types of towels: a bigger one with which you dry yourself after the bath and a face towel that you bring with you into the bath to wash yourself with.
So, after having finished all the business talk and locking your shoes in a locker (this is not the case everywhere, but in case yours does this as well, be sure not to lose the key as the replacement fee is usually about 3,000 Yen (23€/$27)!) you are finally free to enter the changing room.
Take off all of your clothes, you need to be nude to enter the bath. This can be scary at first, as it was for me, but trust me you get used to it after a while. Also, everyone does it so there is no need for shame.
Place your clothes and valuables in a coin locker, take your face towel and off you go into the baths!
But not too fast, before entering the bath there is something that needs to be done first.
I will describe the process in two big sections:
1. Wash yourself before entering the bath
- This is huge. Do not forget to do this or you might catch some angry looks from the locals
- There is a washing area either before or besides the baths
- Sit on of the stools provided and thoroughly wash your body either with the soap provided or the one that you brought with you
- Be careful not to splash water everywhere, especially on neighboring visitors
- Make sure to rinse well, as no soap should enter the bath water
2. Carefully enter the bath
- And I mean it. The water temperature is in most cases at least 41°C/106°F, so take your time to get used to it.
- You probably know this, the floor around the bath is wet and slippery, so please watch your step
- If you have longer hair, make you sure to bind it up as it should not enter the water
- Place your face towel on top of your head or besides the bath, do not put it inside the water
- Do not swim in the bath, it is meant for relaxation only
- If you are together with a friend or family, please do not talk loudly or much at all, the locals value the silence
- Watch your time. If needed, take short breaks as the high temperature can get to your head pretty quickly
And that’s pretty much it! Not too hard at all right? The main thing is really just to be respectful of the environment and to not cause any havoc.
Once you are done, rinse once again at one of the stools and enter back into the changing room where you dry yourself off with the bigger towel and change back into your clothes.
Take your shoes out of the locker and look forward to the next visit!
The bottom line? If you can fit an Onsen visit into your itinerary somehow, definitely do it! It’s an experience you cannot have at many places. The relaxing and tranquilizing effect it has on your body can work wonders, especially if you have a packed, fast-paced travel route.
Thank you very much for reading my article. Feel like you want to visit such a bath? Tell me about your plan in the comments!
My next post is going to be about the very useful Japan Rail Pass!
Look forward to it!
See you there!