One of the best parts of Japan’s winter traditions is going to an onsen (hot spring). Submerging yourself in hot water warms your cold bones like nothing else, leaving you relaxed and ready for bed when you step out of the changing rooms.
Going to an onsen for the first time isn’t easy for everyone, though. Not only do you need to get naked in front of strangers (or worse, your own family), but the many customs and rules can be scary for first-timers.
Read on to learn more about what to expect on your first dip in the onsen.
A brief history of onsen
Japan is incredibly mountainous; of those many mountains, 440 are volcanoes. So, it makes sense that there are so many hot springs. Given that the winters can be particularly harsh in many parts of Japan, the hot springs would have also been a welcome escape from the cold.
Bathing in onsen goes back thousands of years, with some of the earliest written records being in the Man’yoshu, a collection of traditional Japanese poems compiled around AD 759. Some of the oldest onsens are Dogo Onsen, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan and Arima Onsen.
It wasn’t until late in the Edo period (1603–1867) that common people began to visit onsen for recreational purposes.
With such a long history behind it, it won’t surprise you to know that onsen have a lot of customs and rules, both written and unwritten.
One of the biggest rules that challenge overseas travelers is the no-tattoos rule. While many onsen are starting to modernize and accept tattoos, historically, tattoos (sometimes called irezumi for traditional tattoos) are associated with the yakuza (Japanese mafia).
If you have tattoos, find out whether they will allow you to enter or with your tattoos covered by a tattoo shiru (tattoo cover).
Tattoo-friendly.jp is a great resource for finding onsen and sento (public baths) that allow tattoos, but if your tattoo isn’t noticeable at check-in, you could also try renting a room with a private onsen to avoid issues.
You can’t enter an onsen in your swimsuit. Exceptions are spas, but you are still expected to bathe properly beforehand.
If you’re shy, you can try a public bath before anyone else if you visit early in the morning. At some places, you can also rent a private bath called kashikiri onsen (privately rented onsen).
Bathe before you dip
In Japan, it’s customary to clean yourself before entering the bath. Yes. You will bathe before you bathe. The onsen is for relaxing, not scrubbing down. Make your way to the shower stations and wash before dipping your feet in the water.
Other questions and concerns
Before heading to your first onsen, you might have a few other concerns, so let’s quickly look at some other questions travelers might run into.
Are onsen LGBTQ+ friendly?
Unfortunately, visiting an onsen can be an issue for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Although there are some efforts to make things more welcoming and gender-neutral in Beppu, nothing concrete has happened yet.
Most onsens are split into men’s and women’s, and although some have a mixed bathing area, you will still have to go through a gendered changing room first.
If you’d prefer to avoid that, the best option is to use a kashikiri (rental) onsen or to book a room with a private onsen.
Can I bring my children?
This one largely depends on the onsen. Generally, you won’t be allowed to bring babies or toddlers who aren’t potty-trained, mostly because the onsen is not chlorinated.
The floors are also slippery so it can be dangerous, and the water can get very hot—so it may not be comfortable.
Should I keep quiet?
A trip to the onsen is a place to relax and let go. So most have rules about rowdiness and noise that might get in the way of that. Talking at a reasonable level is almost always fine, and strangers may even talk to each other but being over the top or playing music is not usually tolerated.
Most have rules against bathing while drunk, so stay away from the beers before your soak.
There are a lot of words that you might come across at an onsen that you wouldn’t come across elsewhere. Here are a few to help you out:
And here are some basic questions you might need at the onsen:
|Tatu wa daijobu desu ka?
|Are tattoos OK?
|Ninshinchu desu. Onsen ni haitte mo daijobu desu ka?
|I’m pregnant. Can I use the onsen?
|Onsen wa itsu kara hairemasuka?
|When does the onsen open?
|Onsen no konzatsu jikan wa itsu desu ka?
|When is the onsen the most crowded?
Visit an onsen
With all this new onsen knowledge at your disposal, you’re probably itching to get out there and give it a go! While almost every city will have some form of onsen or sento, certain places are particularly well known for their excellent bathing opportunities, so here are just a few:
- Ginzan onsen, Yamagata
- Beppu onsen, Oita
- Shuzenji onsen, Shizuoka
- Kusatsu onsen, Gunma
- Noboribetsu onsen, Hokkaido
- Kurokawa onsen, Kumamoto
- Kinosaki onsen, Hyogo
- Dogo onsen, Ehime
- Oedo onsen monogatari, Tokyo
- Osaka Spa World, Osaka
This is probably a good time to note that the word “onsen” can be used interchangeably between the hot spring area and the actual hot spring baths. The above are all onsen areas, so look for a nice ryokan (traditional inn) or public bath to try out the bathing facilities there.
Have you ever braved an onsen trip, or do you always stick to your room’s bath? Share your experiences in the comments below!