Japan has a bathing culture like wow. Going to onsen in Tokyo, or hot springs, is a rite of passage for every youngster, and kids are taught from an early age how to do public bathing appropriately, often by their grandparents. Getting starkers as a family is as natural in Japan as hopping into the shower. Believe it.
Given that Japan is basically built on a string of volcanoes, it’s no shock that onsen are the pinnacle of bathing culture. Not only do onsen heat you up and clean you, but the waters are said to have many restorative powers due to the minerals in them. Claims about everything from alleviating diabetes and cancer to healing problem skin and backaches run rampant.
Onsen vs. Sento
In addition to onsen, you’ll also sometimes find sento, or public baths that can look a lot like onsen. These do not necessarily have actual hot spring water, but are simply public bathing facilities where you can go and use the tubs, whether you’re an exhibitionist or just have a pitiful bathroom situation at home. Sento tend to be cheaper than onsen, starting at only a couple hundred yen for entry.
A few bathing ground rules:
Unless you’re sure that the facility provides them, it’s best to bring your own towels—a large bath towel for drying and a smaller wash towel or “modesty” towel that you can take into the bathing area and discreetly hold in front of your wobbly bits.
In the locker room or changing room, you’re to take all your gear off before entering the bath area. No underwear, no robes, no towels, just you and all your glory in front of, well, everyone. You can take your modesty towel only with you into the bath area. But it’s okay—everyone else is nekkid too.
Most facilities will offer body soap and shampoo, but bring your own if you’re particular.
Once you’re in the washing area, grab a stool and a bucket and pull up to a tap. Usually, there will be several taps available with shower heads. Sit down and scrub-a-dub. When you think you’re done, scrub some more. Rinse really thoroughly—no trace of soap should be left. Rinse off your stool and bucket before returning them.
Spanking clean in your birthday suit, you can now head to the bath. Dip a toe in to check if you like—doing a hot!hot!hot! dance while hadaka may not be your best look. Ease yourself in. Your towel should not go in the water—keep it around your neck or folded and placed on top of your head.
No swimming, floating, or splish splashing. Get it together, man!
Tattoos are a tough one. Many places have rules that prohibit tattoos, so you may have to either cover it up with a bandage if it’s small enough or keep your booty to yourself, alas. There are a few places that allow them, however.
Onsen in Tokyo:
Now you know what to do, and how to do it, here are some of the best value for money onsen in Tokyo:
Saya no Yudokoro
This pretty onsen has rotemburo, or open-air baths, so you can really be at one with nature. Japanese gardens, fragrant cedar, bathing among rocks and trees, the whole shebang. There are 14 types of bath plus a special hot stone bath, which does cost extra but the price includes a towel and bathing suit. The have body soap and shampoo and conditioner as well as towels to rent.
Supposedly good for: neuralgia, rheumatism, and poor circulation.
|Address||3-41-1 Maenocho, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Shimura-Sakaue Station – an 8-minute walk from exit A2|
|Hours||10am – 1am|
|Cost||¥870 on weekdays, ¥1,100 on weekends|
Takaban no Yu
Not nearly as lovely as Saya, but this sento is cheaper and does the trick. Has a regular bath, whirlpool bath with massage jets, and an herbal rotemburo. There is a sauna (but this costs 715 yen) and the outdoor baths have no roof, allowing you to feel completely out in the open, while still being hidden thanks to their depths.
|Address||2-2-1 Takaban, Meguro-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Gakugei Daigaku|
|Hours||3am – 1am, closed Fridays|
An Edo-old natural sento located in Asakusa, Jokotsuyu is the perfect place to get naked with the locals and enjoy some soaking time. It stands out from the rest since it allows tattoos, and the vending machines have English option, so you’ll be welcomed in no matter what. They have an electric bath, jet baths and even a small outdoor rotenburo where you can see the sky (but probably no stars).
Supposedly good for: Not mentioned, but has bits of Paleozoic leaves and grass in the water.
|Address||1-11-11 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Asakusa or Tawaramachi|
|Hours||1pm – 12am, closed Tuesdays.|
|Towel Rental||¥30 – ¥60|
In Shinagawa, this spot is a stylish and cheap sento (not an onsen). They’ve got regular baths and whirlpool tubs, as well as electric baths, which feel stimulating or else like getting shocked hundreds of times while you’re completely unprotected. They also have something called nanobubbles, whatever those are. There’s an open-air bath and a bedrock bath for women only, although that costs 1,350 yen with the sauna costing 400 yen.
Recommended Tokyo Accommodation
Supposedly good for: joint pain, hemorrhoids, gout.
|Address||3-9-1 Koyama, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Musashi Koyama|
|Hours||Weekdays and holidays: 12pm – 12am Sundays: 8am – 12am, Closed Mondays|
|Towel Rental||Not specified|
This Showa-era onsen is super convenient, just minutes from Nakano Station, and popular with students. No rotemburo—just big tubs, and a medicated bath (with rotating herbs) three times a week. They also encourage kids to come and up to two preschool-aged kids per adult can enter free.
|Address||1-14-13 Arai, Nakano-ku, Tokyo|
|Hours||4pm – 1.30am, closed Tuesdays|
|Towel Rental||Not Specified|
Take no Yu
In the posh Azabu neighborhood you can find this little bathhouse, in operation since 1913! The black “radium water” is minimally filtered, retaining volcanic ash and peat, and dubbed “black beauty” water. There is a sauna and a joint ticket costs 900 yen. Towels can be rented for 200 yen and 50 yen for a small face towel.
Supposedly good for: bruises, chronic digestive disease, motor paralysis.
|Address||1-15-12 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Azabu Juban|
|Hours||3:30pm to 11:30pm, closed Monday and Friday|
|Towel Rental||Not specified|
The Spa Seijo
This onsen isn’t as cheap as some, but it’s spacious and beautiful, with a wide variety of baths including foot bath, vibra-bath, jet bath, and outdoor baths, as well as three types of sauna where you can let it hang out in style.
There are savings to be made, and if you go before 12pm on a weekday it costs 1,080 yen, or after 9pm it’s 860 yen on weekdays, and 1,080 yen on weekends, with an additional towel fee of 216 yen. Between 7am and 10am on weekdays it is 500 yen plus towel fee!
Supposedly good for: anti-aging, melting extra subcutaneous fat, and moisturizing skin.
|Address||3-20-2 Chitosedai, Setagata-ku, Tokyo|
|Nearest Station||Chitose Funabashi (odakyu line)|
|Hours||10am to 11.30pm|
|Cost||Weekdays: ¥1,290, Weekends: ¥1,710|
|Towel Rental||Included in price|
Nu Land boasts eight kinds of baths, but one of them is a sauna that costs extra so let’s call it seven. Those seven include a micro-vibra bath, a jet bath, and a black water bath as well as some outdoor baths, plus there’s a TV room, resting room, and a nice garden. There are different prices for bathing only, bathing plus sauna and those two plus use of all facilities, so be sure to check which you would like!
Supposedly good for: stimulating metabolism and easing digestive system woes.
|Address||2-7-5 Nakarokugo, Ota-ku, Tokyo|
|Hours||10 a.m. to 11 p.m.|
|Cost||¥600 (bathing only) ¥800 (bathing and sauna)|
|Towel Rental||Included in price|
A hop, skip and a jump from Nakameguro Station and the cherry-blossom mecca that is the canal, Kohmeisen is an old-school neighborhood sento, complete with murals, with hot and cold indoor baths, an outdoor bath, and a sauna. There’s a coin laundry downstairs, if you want to double up on your wash. This is a fairly small sento, and can get crowded! There are plenty of cafes and restaurants nearby, though, so you could easily wait. (Remember to bring your own soap and towel!)
Well, what are you waiting for? Gird your loins and get your onsen on.
This article was originally published on Dec 10, 2014 and was updated by Lily Crossley-Baxter on October 31, 2016.