6 Essential Manners You Need To Know When Visiting An Onsen In Japan
First thing first, what is an onsen?
Onsen is thermal communal bathing that is a beloved part of the traditional Japanese culture because of the volcanic geography that Japanese lie on. The onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. There is nothing more relaxing and therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day- especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past.
Traditionally you enter the public bath totally naked. In general, man and women have a separate public bath, changing and washing area but many hotels have private onsen, which is perfect for families or couples who want to enjoy the experience together while some mixed-gender public bath will require you to wear swimwear.
1. Tattoos are taboo
In Japan, tattoo (also called Ire-Zumi) is a symbol of gang and triad members.
In Japan, tattoos are also called “Ire-Zumi” and they have been symbols of gangsters (largely associated with Yakuza Syndicated crome groups) since the Edo Period. Lately, it is getting more popular for young people to get tattoos as a fashion statement, but there are still many onsens and sentoes that refuse people with tattoos to use their facilities. Or they may ask you to hide your tattoos with a Band-Aid or things of that nature, so it is better to make sure before you make your trip.
2. Remove your shoes
Japanese people take dirty shoes very seriously. Shoes are strictly not to be worn at homes and traditional Japanese flooring (tatmi).
Onsens have traditional Japanese floors (tatami) in the changing rooms, therefore, shoes are not allowed.
3. Clothing is not allowed in onsen
Almost all onsen are nude only (exceptions exist). The only thing you can bring with you into the onsen is a small washcloth.
4. Shower first
It is an essential manner to shower head to toe with buckets on little stools before you immerse yourself into the onsen. If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel.
5. Put the towel on your head
The washcloth shouldn’t enter the onsen water. Many people place the towel off to the side of the bath beside them. Real onsen pros balance the towel on their head.
6. Keep quiet
Onsens are a place for people to relax and meditate, so keep chatting to a minimal volume, don’t whip out your phone and video chat your friends or start snapping 100 selfies.
Our favourite places for Onsen experience
Located around 45 minutes by train from Takayama, it has been known as a hot spring resort since the 10th century. The waters here are said to help relieve certain medical conditions as well as relieving fatigue, aiding skin tone and complexion.
Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma
Located around 3 hours from Tokyo by train and bus, the town has been known as a hot spring resort for many centuries. The source of the hot spring water is the nearby Mount Kusatsu-Shrianr and it is said to have fantastic health benefits.
Arima Onsen, Hyogo
A hidden treasure, this hot spring resort is located around 40 minutes by train from Kobe and around 1.5 hours in Kyoto and around 1.5 hours from Kyoto. With more than 1,000 years of history, the oldest onsen town in Japan, Arima Onsen has become a well-known hot spring retreat where the waters are said to have unique healing properties.
Beppu Onsen, Oita
The city of Beppu, on the south-western island of Kyushu has eight different hot springs, each with ryokan and public baths with bathing facilities. Together they produce more hot spring water than any other onsen resort in the country.
Kinosaki Onsen, Hyogo
Kinosaki Onsen can be reached in an hour and a half from Osaka. Hidden in the mountains, away from the crowds of the cities, kinosak has quiet temples, moss-covered forests and soft sandy beaches.
Shibu Onsen, Nagano
A charming little town with a 1,300 year history, it has ancient cobblestone paths with traditional wooden ryokan, where visitors can often be seen strolling through the lanes in their yukata. Shibu Onsen can be combined with a visit to Yudanaka to see the famous Snow Monkeys.
Dogo Onsen, Ehime
Situated around 3 hours from Okayama, or 4.5 hours from Osaka. Dogo Onsen is on one of the smallest of Japan's main islands, Shikoku. It is one of the earliest known hot spring spa towns and is famous for being an inspiration for the Japanese anime film, Spirited Away, a Ghibli film.