If you think you know how to take a bath, think again. There are some big no-nos when it comes to hot spring etiquette in Japan.
The first onsen in Japan were recorded as early as the 1st century. Because of this, the tradition and culture of onsen bathing can be hard to understand. That’s why we’re here to guide you through the rules and regulations before you get naked and slip into piping-hot and (debatably) medicinal waters.
Note: Although we are talking about onsen, almost all of the same rules can be applied to sentō.
What are onsen?
Onsen means hot spring — natural hot water derived from the earth — and it doesn’t just pertain to boiling baths that you dip into. “Onsen” is also in the names of many towns in Japan, such as Kusatsu Onsen and Beppu Onsen. This is due to the interconnected hot springs that the towns lay on top of.
In this article, we are focusing on the bathhouses that use this naturally occurring hot water. Thanks to the island’s perpetual volcanic activity, these bathhouses pop up all over Japan and usually cost between ¥500–¥1,500 to enter. They are so popular that it’s no wonder that the cultural activity has caught the eyes of incoming tourists.
What types of onsen are there?
If you are going to dip into a hot spring anywhere in the world, why not do it in Japan: the home of outdoor, indoor, and private onsen?
Apart from the onsen attached to ryokan hotels, there are also wild hot springs that are open and free to use with no one dictating what you can and can’t do (heaven?). But here are some of the most common types of onsen you’re more likely to access:
- Rotenburo: an outdoor, open-air bath where you can enjoy the scenery while soaking in the hot spring water.
- Kashikiriburo: a private, indoor hot spring bath that can be rented by individuals or groups. Usually between ¥2,000–¥5,000 per hour.
- Ashiyu: a foot bath where you soak your feet in hot spring water.
- Konyoku: a mixed-gender onsen.
What’s inside an onsen?
Entering an onsen for the first time can be daunting, especially if you don’t know where to go or what to do. We’ve outlined the different areas and a step-by-step guide, so you don’t feel like a duck out of water.
Before you go in, make sure you haven’t wandered into the wrong room. Most establishments have separate baths for men and women, and they have their own entrances. The noren (entry curtain) for each will usually have a distinct color (red for women, blue for men) and also have the kanji for woman (女) or man (男) on the front.
Once through the curtain, you’ll enter the changing room — this is where you strip off. It’s usually an open-plan area complete with sinks, mirrors, and — more often than not — hairdryers. The fancier the establishment the more creams, ointments, and lotions you’ll find to help accentuate that post-onsen glow. There will be lockers for valuables, with a key you can keep on your wrist, and baskets for your clothes.
If they have not given you the option to rent two towels at the entrance (around ¥200–¥500) or specified that you need to bring your own, then you may find them in this room. The big towel stays in your clothes basket for when you exit the onsen, and the small towel goes with you into the…
Once you’re completely naked, it’s time to get clean. The washing area is nearly always in a separate room from the changing room but is usually connected to the onsen bath. Once you open the door, you’ll be hit with a waft of steam. If this is a shared onsen, you’ll see a row of shower heads, faucets, and stools — sometimes separated by a barrier for privacy.
Even if you’ve just had a bath, it is imperative that you wash here, and thoroughly. Sit down on the stool — don’t stand to take a shower — and use the shampoo, conditioner, and body soap provided to scrub as you’ve never scrubbed before. You can use the bowel/bucket provided to get the hard-to-reach areas. Tie up your hair in a ponytail if you can.
Note that while you can brush your teeth, shave, and do other intense cleaning here, this is usually reserved for sentō (local public baths) and not up-market onsen establishments.
Once you’re spick and span — no suds allows — you can enter the…
Follow the trail of heat to the bath — or baths, depending on the onsen. There’s usually a step into the pool and a rail for those who need an extra hand. The temperature of the bath can be anywhere from 35 to 45°C, depending on the season. If you’re in an outside onsen in the dead of winter, then this will more than likely be hotter. There are sometimes nobs to change the temperature yourself, but best to leave that to the professionals.
There may also be a paddle to mix the water and a small net for removing bugs in an outdoor onsen.
How long you’d like to stay in the onsen is up to you, but around 15 minutes is average. Some stay for longer (max 40 minutes), but you don’t want to end up looking like a prune. You can always cool off by jumping out and using cold water from the washing area or a cold bath if available.
Once you’ve had enough and feel rejuvenated, pat yourself off with your small towel, get dressed, and head out to the…
Depending on the place, there may be an area to grab a drink from a vending machine (or free water cooler) and sit down to fully reflect on your onsen experience. This will usually be just outside the changing rooms and can be communal for both men and women. If you’re really lucky, there may even be milk, ice cream, and a massage chair to polish you off.
How to use an onsen: Step-by-step
If you’ve read up to here and are still confused, just follow this quick guide and you can’t go wrong.
- Enter: Make sure you enter the right bath; public onsen are nearly always separated into baths for men and baths for women.
- Undress: Once inside the onsen changing room, you will need to undress and put your clothes in the locker or basket provided.
- Wash: Before entering the bath, you must clean your body thoroughly. There will be showerheads and faucets with buckets and stools where you can sit and wash.
- Bathe: Once you are clean, you can enter the bath. The water temperature is usually between 35°C to 45°C.
- Relax: You can spend as long as you like in the bath, but try not to exceed 40 minutes.
- Exit: When you are ready to leave the onsen, make sure to dry yourself off with your small towel before redressing in the changing room.
- Relax, again: Once dressed and dry, you can enter the lounge area, grab a drink, and fall into the nearest squidgy chair.
This is a snapshot of things to remember not to do in the onsen bath:
- Don’t put your small towel or hair in the onsen bath water.
- Don’t use your phone or camera in public onsen.
- Don’t swim, float, or splish-splash. Get it together, man!
- Don’t drink alcohol or be intoxicated.
- Don’t get into the bath without washing first.
- Don’t be too loud or disturb others.
- Don’t wear a swimsuit — although, you can in a wild onsen.
Can I use an onsen if I have a tattoo?
Unfortunately, for most onsen in Japan, you are not allowed to enter the bathhouse if you have a visible tattoo — some establishments will give you a sticker to cover them or you can do that yourself. While it’s an old and prejudiced rule designed to keep gangers out of public bathhouses, it still prevails to this day.
However, some spots are welcoming to those with tattoos — such as Kusatsu Onsen Town. Take a look at our full article for where to go.
What is the difference between sentō and onsen?
Sentō are communal baths that generally have the same layout as an onsen but don’t need to be connected to a hot spring. Before bathrooms in Japanese homes were common, sentō were places where you’d get your daily wash. They are usually significantly cheaper than onsen (¥200–¥400) and are found in local neighborhoods — you can still find plenty in Tokyo, although they are somewhat dying.
Can I shave in the washing area of an onsen?
As mentioned, public bathhouses like sentō and onsen were often used for everyday necessary cleaning, including shaving. It is still common to find people shaving (legs and beards) in sentō, but it is rarer to find them shaving in slightly more up-market onsen establishments.
Can I use the onsen bath on my period?
Most onsen will not tell you explicitly that you cannot use the bath on your period. Some people will enter the bath with a tampon, but the topic is often debated. If you’re worried, maybe sit this one out.
Can families use the onsen together?
Yes, if your family has both boys and girls, then boys can usually accompany their mothers or family members into the women’s onsen — and girls into the men’s onsen — if under the age of seven. Please check the exact age at each establishment. If you are still worried or unsure, consider renting a private onsen.
Where can I find an onsen?
There are an amazing amount of places to experience onsen in Japan, and luckily, we have plenty of articles on the subject. Here are a few to get you started: