Japanese onsen – the famous natural hot spring-fed baths scattered throughout Japan – are a huge part of the culture. As a visitor, it’s important to know what to do when you’re there. Here are our 7 tips from a local on how to use onsen.
Japan is one of those destinations that is so full of mystery and arcane culture that not knowing what to expect can be both exciting and daunting. Nowhere is this more true than when visiting a Japanese spa also known as onsen.
Social hubs, places of healing and spiritual rejuvenation, holiday destinations, the Japanese onsen are a keystone to the culture. To people who’ve never been to an onsen before, the experience can be quite intimidating.
Men and women usually bathe separately and more often than not you wear no clothes at all, so already you can see the potential for enormous faux pas!
So instead of telling you about what we found when we were there, I decided to enlist the help of our friend Shinobu, who is originally from Kanazawa in the mid-west of Japan.
Here are her top tips for using Japanese onsen:
A quick guide to Japanese onsen – interview with Shinobu Arai
Why are onsen so popular in Japan?
I don’t know… it’s in our DNA…. I used to go to public baths (not really onsen) when I was a child in the ’70s because we did not have a bath in our house. I have such good memories of these experiences. I think Onsen is a luxury extension of public bath maybe?
Is there a proper routine or procedure people are expected to follow when visiting an onsen?
Yes. If you are staying at a ryokan [a traditional Japanese style hotel like this one we stayed in in Victoria] and are going to use the onsen, you should change into a Yukata before going to the onsen. Once you are inside, find an empty chair and shower booth area, and wash your body first. It’s not necessary to wash your hair. Then going to the tub. Repeat as many as you want.
(A Yukata is a traditional Japanese gown. They are provided by the ryokan – or you can bring your own.)
You mentioned tattoos can be an issue in an osen – are there any other faux pas foreigners might make?
Probably the worst, most ill mannered thing to do would be soaking your towel inside of the tub. It’s considered to be a filthy thing to do. And, please, no brushing teeth or no shaving either. No photos, for obvious reasons!
What’s the etiquette of using the modesty towel?
You can hide your private parts with it, wash your body with it, wipe the water away at the end with it. Just don’t soak it in the tub.
(A modesty towel is a small towel, a bit bigger than a face flannel, that the onsen provides before you go into the shower area. By the way, don’t put this on your face!)
What do people usually do after they’ve come out of the onsen?
Older people stay naked for a while in the changing area to cool down. Some check their weight on the scale and some drink water or “coffee milk” from the fridge in the changing area.
I usually change to my Yukata straight away. You then go back to your room for dinner and drinks.
Do you have a favourite onsen to visit when you’re back in Japan?
However, people in Kanazawa go to a rather unknown onsen called Yuwaku. It’s in a small mountain village and not easy to access but I like it because it’s quiet with local people.
For overseas travellers, however, Hakone is the place to go for onsen. It’s near to Mt Fuji and not far from Tokyo.
How much should it cost roughly to go to an onsen?
If you are staying at a ryokan with an onsen, it’ll be about ¥10,000+ pp with breakfast and dinner. You can also go to just the onsen without staying overnight, which is ¥500+.
Generally, most onsen (and ryokan) have large communal baths for men and for women separately. My husband, who’s Australian, used to be reluctant to go to the communal ones because he’d be alone without me and wasn’t comfortable being naked in front of strangers.
Having said that, his very first onsen experience was with his now father-in-law. He was glad that he has bad eyesight and that he had to take his glasses off inside.
We used to stay at a ryokan where each room has own private onsen bathtub, outside in the garden or on the balcony. They are slightly more expensive but still ¥15,000 pp with 2 meals, so I think it’s quite affordable. You can also stay in an onsen ryokan where you can book the private onsen by the hour.
How to get to onsen around Japan
Many of the onsen, and the little towns and villages around Japan that are home to these amazing spas, are deep in the countryside.
Getting to onsen can be quite tough.
Driving is one option – we have some tips on hiring a car and driving in Japan – but better is to catch the train.
The Japanese rail system is incredible and goes to pretty much every part of the main islands. You can buy your national pass from the main company JR Pass here.
This pass includes shinkansen and covers the whole country. It’s way easier, quicker and cheaper than doing it as you travel.
If you know exactly where you want to travel in Japan, the Regional JR Pass gives you more specificity and saves you even more money, but does restrict you to that region of the country.
Otherwise you have to buy tickets to the other areas you want to travel to.
These passes have been designed specifically for tourists and are only available to non-residents and visitors.
Have you ever been to an onsen in Japan? Do you have any other tips or questions about using onsen in Japan? Speak to us in the comments below!