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A Quick Guide To Mixed-Gender Bathing In Japan

Learn the art of and where to find one of Japan’s oldest traditions that's quickly fading away.

By 4 min read 1

Onsen (hot spring) culture traces back to ancient times. Considered as a spiritual, cultural and hygienic practice, bathing in Japan comes with unspoken rules and etiquette. Across Japan, different kinds of public bathing facilities range from onsen (natural hot spring water) to sento (public baths) with added features such as rotenburo (open-air baths) or saunas. Historically, konyoku onsen or mixed-gender hot springs were considered the norm until Japan opened its doors to Western influence. Today, mixed-gender hot springs aren’t as common as most are found in more rural parts of Japan.

If you plan on going to one or are just curious about onsen bathing etiquette, especially for mixed-genders. Experience a stress-free onsen experience with your friends and family, with our guide to mixed-gender bathing in Japan.

Japan’s Mixed-Gender Bathing History

It can be an intimate experience.

Many citizens believe that one of the reasons why mixed-gender hot springs are dwindling is that onsen goers do not respect the rules and manners of such establishments anymore. Women do not feel comfortable being ogled by surrounding patrons and foreign tourists do not respect the traditional policies. To prevent the continuation of these awful onsen offenses, here are some do’s and don’ts should you decide to relax at a mixed-gender hot spring.

The concept of a konyoku onsen may sound like a cultural taboo itself, but it has a long history that is often overlooked. Believe it or not, records of konyoku onsen go back as far as the 9th century, with many scholars believing that its history goes back even further than that. It wasn’t until Japan opened its ports to the world that the concept of mixed-gender bathing started to receive a critical eye. When those from the West experienced it, they found the behavior lewd and vulgar.

Post-World War II, Japan sought to rid itself of these establishments that tainted the developing country’s image by passing various laws that made it impossible for new konyoku onsen to spring up. Since then, many establishments have been slipping away into history without much notice. Experiencing this dwindling tradition is a rare treat. With proper etiquette and behavior, we can do our part to help ensure mixed-gender onsen stay around for generations to come.

Do’s of Mixed-Gender Bathing

When in the onsen, don’t stare!
  • Follow the lead. Though all onsen have a few general rules, some establishments may have different traditions. Without staring (more on that later), observe what everyone else is doing around you with their towels. Get a feel for how those around you are settling into the baths and be a part of the relaxing environment.
  • Obey the coverage rules. Some konyoku onsen will require you to go fully au naturale while others require women to wear a towel. If you aren’t sure, ask an onsen employee.

Tip: If you see that there is a towel wrap rental option at the bath, assume that women should rent a towel. Men can use a small hand towel to cover themselves.

  • Ask questions. Employees at konyoku onsen would rather you ask how things are done rather than be told what you are doing is wrong.
  • Keep your towel in the water. If you are at a konyoku onsen that calls for, or suggests, that you cover yourself with a towel, please do so. Also, keep in mind that these are the only kind of hot springs that allow towels in the water. Regular onsen customers keep their washcloths out of the baths.

Tip: Though many konyoku onsen are OK with tattoos, some have strict tattoo policies. Be sure to call and inquire ahead of time. If you have small tattoos, covering them with bandages is a quick fix.

  • Tie your hair up. This isn’t a rule specific to konyoku onsen, but this policy is often violated. If your hair is long enough to touch the water while you are soaking, it should be tied up. This applies to everyone so be sure to keep some hair ties on hand.

Don’ts of Mixed-Gender Bathing

Even the monkeys know how to behave in an onsen.
  • Don’t assume that swimsuits are OK. Always ask to protect the tradition.
  • Don’t stare. This may sound obvious, but this is a major complaint within the konyoku onsen community. The word wani, or crocodile, is a term for someone who waits and watches for any flash of bare skin. Don’t be a wani!
  • Don’t converse loudly. In Japan, bathing is a means of relaxation and cleansing the soul of stress and fatigue. Try not to ruin other patrons’ experiences by talking loudly with your friends.

30 Mixed-Gender Bathing Hot Springs

Every konyoku onsen is different, so it’s important to research and ask questions about the specific hot spring you will be visiting. Now that you know the tips and tricks of relaxing natural spas, here are our recommendations for some beautiful spots to enjoy konyoku all around Japan.

Do you have any mixed-gender onsen in Japan stories or tips? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Thomas N. says:

    It is a good idea to go to mixed bathing as a couple when one of us does not speak japanaese nor undestands kanji. So its good to know these onsen exist. It sounds quite similar to mixed sauna spas in germany. Maybe a bit more formal. 🙂



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