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Relax and unwind in an onsen

Relax and unwind in an onsen
Spending time soaking in a mineral rich 'onsen' (hot spring) is a favourite Japanese pastime. Find out about etiquette and the best bath houses here.

Relaxing in an onsen (温泉), solo or with family or friends, is a large part of Japanese society. You’ll be able to find one pretty much wherever you are, each region specialising in different mineral infused spring water, here’s a little low-down if you take the plunge.

Shikoku onsen

Variety is the spice of life

Within larger cities onsen are likely to be modern bath houses, but use your Japan Rail Pass to travel around the country and try everything from traditional to modern, outdoor, indoor, segregated, mixed, cedar, iron, stone or tile spas.

Famous onsen areas

Beppu and Yufuin are hotspots in Kyushu, with baths overlooking the sea in Kagoshima. Nagano will yield outdoor onsen frequented by monkeys (above) while Gunma prefecture enables onsen to be experienced easily from Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass. For a more comprehensive list see here.

Onsen etiquette

Some of you might be reluctant to dip your toes as onsen bathing is strictly naked only. There’s really no need to be as the atmosphere inside the baths is always very friendly, with fellow bathers pleased that a visitor is experiencing this unique side of Japan. (Most places are sex segregated, though check before you visit as mixed baths do exist).

  • Undress in the changing room and place your belongings in the basket provided. Please remove all jewellery.
  • If staying at a ryokan with an onsen attached you will be provided with a small modesty towel in your room. If the onsen is stand alone please bring your own or buy one from reception.
  • Rinse yourself at one of the seated showers before bathing, washing without soap is acceptable, if you do use it make sure not to transfer any into the baths either on your body or on your towel.
  • Slowly lower yourself into the bath like a floating cherry blossom petal, no splashing! Soaking or wringing your towel is considered bad manners so place it out of the water or on your head.
  • After bathing wash again at the seated showers and leave the area rinsed and tidy when you leave.

In many onsen there may be signs refusing entry if you have tattoos. Tattoos in Japan often indicate Yakusa (mafia) and so large inks may not be allowed. Please ask if you are in doubt.

photo Andrew

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