Japan has a bathing culture like wow. Going to onsen, 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
Onsen means “hot springs” so by definition onsen are fed by natural spring water. A sento is a public bathhouse, which may be filled with natural spring water but more often than not isn’t. Sento used to be everywhere, before baths came standard in housing. Still people use them, perhaps for a more leisurely soak than a shared bathroom at home would allow. They also function as community hubs. Importantly, sento tend to be pretty cheap, costing only a few hundred yen, whereas onsen tend to cost more.
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 (naked) 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.
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 multiple baths and saunas to choose from, including a special hot stone sauna, which does cost extra but the price includes a towel and pajama rental (because you will sweat!). 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; an 8-minute walk from exit A2|
|Cost||¥890 on weekdays; ¥1,120 on weekends|
Takaban no Yu
Not nearly as lovely as Saya, but this sento is cheaper and does the trick — and it actually uses real spring water. It has a regular bath, whirlpool bath with massage jets, and an herbal rotemburo. There is a sauna (but this costs 500 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–12am; closed Thursdays & Fridays|
In Aoyama, 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.
Supposedly good for: joint pain, hemorrhoids, gout.
|Address||3-12-3 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo|
|Hours||12pm–12am on weekdays; 12pm–11pm on weekends; closed Fridays|
This Showa-era sento 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|
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–11:30pm; closed Mondays & Fridays|
The Spa Seijo
This onsen isn’t as cheap as some, but it’s spacious and beautiful, with a wide variety of baths including a foot bath, a vibra-bath, a 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 1,100 yen, or after 8pm it’s 880 yen on weekdays and 1,100 yen on weekends, with an additional towel fee of 220 yen. Between 7am and 10am on weekdays it is 550 yen!
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)|
|Cost||¥1,320 on weekdays; ¥1,740 on weekends|
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|
|Cost||bathing only ¥480; bathing & sauna ¥800|
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 last updated in January 2022.