Learn everything you need to know about the quintessentially Japanese experience of visiting a bathhouse or onsen in our guide to bathing etiquette for first-timers.
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As authentic Japanese experiences go, trying a bathhouse or onsen is right up there with eating sushi, visiting a temple or shrine, attending a sumo match, or seeing Mount Fuji with your own eyes. In other words, it’s unmissable, unforgettable, and one of the best ways to really experience Japanese culture. With more than 25,000 onsen across Japan, you have plenty to choose from too. Of course, for westerners and first-time bathers, taking off your clothes and lowering yourself into a communal onsen surrounded by strangers and other people might feel challenging or even scary. And what about the correct etiquette and rules? Do you wear a bathing costume or not? Do you shower before or after? Don’t worry - we’re here to help here at JR Pass. Simply read on to find out everything you need to know about Japanese bathing etiquette and the unique experience of visiting an onsen, plus our recommendations of potential onsen to visit during your time in Japan.
What is an Onsen?
The word onsen (温泉) describes both natural hot springs produced by Japan’s geothermal and volcanic foundations and the bathhouses that use them. While the word ‘sento’ technically describes public bathhouses, the term onsen often encompasses the full range of bathing facilities as well as hotels/inns, traditional ryokan, and spas that are built surrounding onsen. Sento on the other hand are not attached to a natural hot spring and simply use hot water, while rotenburo are outdoor onsen. However, the word onsen is often used for all three.
Since Japan is one of the most volcanically active countries, onsen are plentiful, and there are a huge variety of different types to experience. Within larger cities, onsen are likely to be modern bath houses, but with your Japan Rail Pass in hand you can travel around the country and try everything from traditional to modern, outdoor, indoor, segregated, mixed, cedar, iron, stone or tile spas. There are onsen resort towns where you can lower yourself into warm water surrounded by snowy mountains or lush green forests - bliss! Relaxing in an onsen, solo or with family or friends, is a large part of Japanese society and has numerous benefits including pain alleviation, clearing up skin, and reducing fatigue and stress. You’ll not only be able to find one pretty much wherever you are in Japan, but each region specialises in a different mineral infused spring water, so no two onsen are the same - even more reason to travel around and try as many as you can.
A Brief History of Japanese Bathhouses and Onsen
Onsen have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, with descriptions of hot spring baths already found in the Nihon Shoki, which dates back to the 1st Century. Japan is a series of islands - more than 6,000 in fact - and is located in the Pacific Ocean’s ‘Ring of Fire - making the country one of the most volcanically active in the world. The upside of this intense geothermal activity are naturally occurring hot springs throughout the country - there’s such an abundance in fact that there are an estimated 25,000 onsen in Japan, from outdoor hot springs to contemporary and luxurious modern day bathhouses - all taking advantage of the pure, naturally occurring hot spring water bubbling up from Japan’s geothermal core. In many ways, it’s unsurprising that onsen have become such an integral and cherished part of Japanese culture and society. Onsen are enjoyed by family and friends and it’s a great way for visitors to experience a Japanese tradition first-hand.
Essential Etiquette for Japanese Onsen
It’s time for the answers to the questions you’ve been wondering about since you started reading. What is the correct way to enjoy a Japanese onsen? What is the etiquette and how can you make sure you’re following the rules? The answer to the last question is simple - just read on and we’ll tell you.
- Onsen are separated by gender
The majority of Japanese onsen are segregated by gender meaning that men bathe with men and women bathe with women. While mixed onsen and private onsen for couples do exist, most are segregated so you don’t have to worry about being nude in front of the opposite sex.
- Take off all your clothes
There are no bathing suits required in Japanese onsen - you go in completely naked. This may feel scary for westerners who are unused to communal bathing, but in Japan it is completely natural and even a social experience. You do, however, get a small towel to cover yourself and you should use this on your way into and out of the water. You will also be required to leave your shoes at the door when entering - something common across Japan - and you may receive slippers to wear inside instead (although not in the onsen itself, of course). There are baskets and lockers for storing your clothes and belongings.
- No phones or cameras
Onsen are not places to try and take photos for social media!
- Wash in the shower area before entering the onsen
You might be surprised to discover that you wash with soap before getting into the onsen. This is to ensure your body is clean before you get into the hot spring water. There are shower areas to use, often with soap provided, before you lower yourself into the onsen. It is essential you do this before getting into the water to make sure you’re clean.
- No washing in the onsen
Since you wash beforehand, you don’t wash in the onsen. It’s for relaxing only.
- Cover any tattoos
Traditionally, tattoos have been associated with organised crime in Japan, so showing them off is a general no-no, especially at the onsen. This means checking to see whether the onsen allows tattoos before disrobing or more likely, covering them over with a skin-coloured plaster or sticker (where possible). These will sometimes be provided.
- Don’t put your towel in the water
As we mentioned, you will be provided with a small towel for your modesty, but it’s important not to let this fall into the onsen water. It’s another no-no, and is seen as contaminating the water. Instead, place your towel safely outside of the pool or rest it on your shoulder or head (as pictured above).
- No alcohol
While drinking alcohol in an onsen is forbidden, it is recommended to drink plenty of water beforehand to stay hydrated. Also, no running, shouting, or jumping into the water - this should hopefully be self-explanatory.
- Don’t go under the water or let your hair go in the onsen
Similar to the towel rule, it’s frowned upon to go under the water or let your hair go in the water as it’s seen as contaminating the purity of the onsen.
- Try the different baths
Onsen often include a range of different baths, including different temperatures and even electric baths with a low-level electric current running through them (yes, really!), so there’s definitely more than one type of onsen to experience.
- Relax and enjoy
With all the above etiquette observed, simply lower yourself in, relax, lie back, and enjoy one of the most authentically Japanese experiences - the onsen. Afterwards, simply towel down and get dressed - you don’t shower again after getting out of the onsen as you’d be washing away all the beneficial geothermal minerals.
Now you’ve learned the correct etiquette for enjoying Japanese onsen, we’re sure you’re eager to put your knowledge into practice. Here is a carefully curated list of recommended onsen experiences across Japan:
- If you’re visiting a major city like Tokyo, you can still enjoy a traditional onsen. Read our guide to The Best Five Onsen in Tokyo to find out more.
- Also near Tokyo is Atami Onsen Town - perfect for those wanting a day trip out of the city.
- Meanwhile, for those wanting a more old-fashioned onsen experience, you should read our guide to the World Heritage listed Yunotsu Onsen in Shimane Prefecture. It’s like going back in time to try an onsen.
- Kinosaki is one of Japan’s most famous Onsen Resort Towns and features a trail of seven public onsen for you to try in a single town. Read our guide to Kinosaki Onsen Resort Town for the lowdown.
- Did you know it’s not just the Japanese people that love onsens, but snow monkeys too? Find out more in our guide to Monkeying Around with the Japanese Macaque.
- Speaking of wild, for a truly spectacular outdoor onsen experience it’s hard to beat Noboribetsu on Hokkaido and the volcanic landscape of Jigokudani, which is better known as Hell Valley.
- Traditional Japanese inns known as Ryokan often include their own onsen on site. You can find out more about this authentic Japanese accommodation in our guide to The Best Ryokan in Japan.