If you were to ask anybody who visited Japan what their favorite thing to do was, one thing in particular might stand out from the rest. That thing is a Japanese Onsen.
But wait…what is a Japanese onsen? And how are you suppose to use it?
Well first off, Japanese onsen are basically a place where you can bathe in natural hot spring waters.
It is a perfect place for anyone to unwind and relax.
There is no nation in the world that loves hot springs more than Japan.
However to many other folks outside of Japan, this type of thing can be a total mystery. Not only that, but trying to go to one can be a really scary thing to do.
But it really doesn’t have to be that way.
Onsens are relatively easy to do and isn’t as scary as one might think.
In this guide, you will learn all there is to learn about a Japanese Onsen and how it works.
Then with your newfound knowledge, you too will be able to go to an Onsen like the rest of Japan.
Japanese Onsen Basics
What is an Onsen?
Basically, an Onsen is a bathhouse that consists of a natural hot spring water bath.
It starts with the Onsen water which is geothermally heated from beneath the ground and rises up to the surface steaming hot. It is this water that people love to bath in.
However to be considered an Onsen, there are a few pre-requisites.
The Onsen water must contain at least one of the designated chemical elements that naturally occur in a hot spring water. Not only that, but it also has to be at least 25C when it comes out from the ground.
Now I need to tell you this.
Onsens are typically a communal bathing environment. There are some private ones where you can bathe by yourself, however most of them are communal.
This might not sound too exciting for many foreigners, after all we just aren’t use to it.
However in Japan, it is part of a beloved culture that many people are totally fine with.
Why is it so great?
Throughout history, Onens have been believed to have a ton of healing properties that will help your body.
For instance, the waters are packed full of minerals which many people think will be good for your circulation, skin as well as your health overall.
Plus, there really isn’t anything more therapeutic then when you are lying inside the hot bath relaxing after a long tiring day. It will really make you enjoy life as you lay inside and enjoy the scenery all around you.
The overall appearance of an Onsen is also pretty nice to look at as well. Most of the Onsens are made from marble or granite and sometimes wood which are situated in areas with a phenomenal view of the surrounding area.
Different Types of Bathhouses
Now, you have to know that not all bathhouses are the same.
Many people might think that because it is a public bath, it is automatically an Onsen.
That isn’t true however.
There is another type of bathhouse called a Sento which is pretty similar to an Onsen.
The difference is that most Sento’s are actually using tap or well water for their baths and are generally located inside cities and towns. They also often times add artificial bathing salts or powders, various herbs, milk or even sake to the water to enhance the bathing effects.
While an actual Onsen uses natural hot spring water that contain various minerals and are located near a volcanic mountain. They are also generally more expensive than a regular Sento.
Before you go to any Onsens, there are a few rules that you have to follow. Some of these rules can definitely seem a bit scary but once you have done it once, you will realize just how easy it really is.
Yes! When you are going to an Onsen, you need to know that clothing is not allowed inside. You are going to have to be nude when you go into the water.
This might be scary at first, but it doesn’t really take long before you are fully use to it. Just go on inside and soon the thought will disappear.
You have to realize that the Japanese people or other folks who go to an Onsen don’t really care about what you look like. They aren’t going to be staring at you, and chances are they probably aren’t going to talk to you either. They are there to relax and unwind.
So go on in and don’t mind what the other people are doing.
Now if you are really shy and scared, you should be happy to know that there are a few alternatives.
For instance, instead of going to a communal public bathhouse, you can simply go to a private one. Some inns will have rooms where they include a private Onsen exclusively for you.
Or you can try to find bathhouses that add milk into the water. This makes the water milky and non-see through. So you can go on in and don’t have to worry about anybody trying to peak at you.
Shower Before You Go In
Now I know what you’re thinking.
Why shower before you head into a bath? Isn’t the bath suppose to clean you off? Well unlike the Western culture, the Japanese culture is pretty nit picky on cleanliness. They want to make sure you are fully clean before you go into any communal areas. And this is especially important if you are heading into an Onsen or a Sento.
The reason for this is because they want to keep the waters as clean as possible. Nobody wants to see a dirty person come into the bathhouse and dirty up the entire place.
Which is why, every Onsen you visit will have some showers for you to use outside of the bath. Soap, Shampoo and Conditioner are usually always provided so that you can keep yourself clean.
By the way, that stool you see in the shower…you are expected to use it. Showering while standing up is considered bad manners as you might splash onto the people near you. Also remember to clean yourself thoroughly so that you won’t get soap or shampoo into the Onsen.
Whenever you go to an Onsen, you will usually be provided with a small and large towel. If there isn’t any towels provided to you, then it probably means you have to rent them.
The large towel is used to dry yourself and should be left inside the changing room.
Where as the small towel is used to help wash yourself. You are allowed to take the small towel into the bath area with you but you should never let it touch the water. Most people will just put the small towels on their heads when they go into the Onsen.
Hair and Head Etiquette
First thing you should know is, you should never put your head into the water. The reason for this is because this is a shared environment, the water might carry some sort of infection. In which case if you put your head into the water, it will increase the risk of you catching something.
Not only that, but you shouldn’t let your hair touch the water either. The reason for this is because nobody wants to relax in an Onsen only to see your hairs floating around onto their body. Your best bet if you have long hair is to wrap it up so it doesn’t touch the waters.
Tattoo’s aren’t too widely excepted here in Japan. Mainly because they have an association with the Yakuza (Japanese Gangsters). This means that many of these bath houses if not all of them will ban people with tattoos completely.
Now if you have a small tattoo, you might be able to still go into one of these bath houses as long as you cover it up with tape or bandage etc. However if you have a larger tattoo, then you most likely won’t be able to cover it up.
So what do you do if you have a tattoo?
Unless you can cover it up, your only other way is to go to an inn or hotel that has a private bathhouse. This way nobody will mind if you have a tattoo or not.
As long as you aren’t screaming your lungs out or yelling, then it is totally fine. Most people who come to an Onsen will generally have a bit of a chat here and there while they relax, so talking is totally normal.
As you can see, going to an Onsen isn’t difficult at all.
Sure you might get scared or nervous if it is your first time, but once you actually go inside the Onsen then things will be different. You’ll soon find out that everything is perfectly normal.
So hopefully this list was able to help you understand what an Onsen is and how they work.
This way next time you decide to go to an Onsen, you will know exactly what to do.
Also, if you are planning to visit Japan anytime soon, you might be interested in some of my other Japan posts.
- Things To Do In Nagoya, Japan
- Things To Do In Nagasaki, Japan
- Things To Do In Nara, Japan
- Things To Do In Furano, Japan
Or you can check out my complete list of things to do in Japan by clicking here.
Let me know how your trip goes!