The glorious Land of the Rising Sun is steeped with an abundance of traditions, including the wonderfully relaxing experience of onsen bathing.
An onsen is essentially a natural hot spring bath. Eons ago in history, the Japanese people found that bathing in these onsen baths awarded them with many rejuvenating health benefits including improved skin, released body tensions, and healing abilities.
Since then, it’s become part and parcel of Japanese culture and is a tradition that still stands strong today.
The onsen pool itself can exist in a myriad of ways: whether it’s a minimalistic hot tub-style onsen in a room within a ryokan, or a breathtaking natural pool nestled deep in the forests, the experience of bathing in one is unmatched. Sometimes, you’ll even find them situated high up in the mountains overlooking the neighboring cities, which makes for marvelous views at night.
As with most experiences and traditions in Japan, onsen bathing is completely open to foreigners, however, there is indeed such a thing as onsen etiquette.
To enjoy yourself to the maximum whilst respecting the locals, read on as we detail what you should not do at an onsen in Japan.
1. Wear Bathers into the Onsen
The number one rule that many people don’t believe at first is that onsen bathing is done in your birthday suit. That’s right, you completely strip and enter the onsen with nothing but a little towel that they provide to you at the reception desk.
This has long been the rule for bathing in onsen, and one that Japanese people grew up used to. In that sense, whilst you may feel awkward, don’t be. It’s much easier said than done, but also remember that the locals around you have no intention of looking at you; they’re just there for a peaceful bath.
With that in mind, please don’t panic halfway and decide to wear your bathers into the onsen bath. It’s against the rules of almost all onsen baths, and will definitely earn you a disdained attitude by the other guests and you may even be escorted out.
2. Not Rinse Beforehand
One of the things that you absolutely need to do is give yourself a proper rinse before entering the onsen bath. Once you strip and place your belongings into a locker, the next step is to locate an empty shower stall, sit on the small stool, and rinse down with the accompanying body wash.
This ensures that you keep the entire experience hygienic for the rest of the guests.
You wouldn’t want to be climbing into a hot bath with someone who hasn’t washed down, so you need to respect them enough to do the same!
3. Put Your Towel into the Onsen
There’s that teeny tiny moment between finishing your rinse and making your way to the onsen where you’re completely exposed to the other bathers. You can opt to cover yourself with the little towel provided, but once you climb into the bath, do not allow it to touch the water.
Again, for hygiene reasons, no one is allowed to place their towels directly into the water. Instead, people usually fold their towels and leave them on the side of the onsen, or they place them on top of their heads.
4. Leave Your Hair Hanging
For those with long hair, please don’t forget to tie it up!
There is nothing more disturbing than the thought of relaxing in a hot onsen and then noticing a stray strand of hair floating around.
To avoid this situation altogether, remember to tie up your hair and secure it properly before entering the onsen bath.
5. Submerge Your Head
This one is a big no-no! Again, one of the main reasons for this is probably for individual and collective sanitation, however, privacy also comes into play.
This could be to protect your eyes as well, as onsen baths are usually packed with natural minerals and sulfur, and getting these into your eyes might sting!
6. Speak Loudly
The tranquil experience of bathing in an onsen is half the reason why people choose to try it. However, it’s also a place where you can have mild social interactions with your friends and family.
It is generally acceptable to have quiet, low-volume conversations with other people, but try to keep it at just that: quiet chit-chat. Also, if you attempt to initiate conversations with others but they don’t reciprocate, don’t feel miffed – they’re just trying to rejuvenate in peace!
7. Swim or Make Abrupt Movements
Some people might mistake the larger, open onsen baths as being proper pools. However, please don’t ever treat it as a pool!
The idea of onsen bathing is to just slowly climb in, find a sweet spot, and relax. No one ever swims or makes any movements that may disrupt the water in any way.
This will completely ruin the Zen of onsen bathing.
8. Not Check the Tattoo Policy Before
Japan has always had a long, complicated history with tattoos (and their apparent association with the yakuza). This is reflected in most onsen policies, as they will reject you if you have a tattoo on you.
However, many onsen places are beginning to relax a little on that rule. Some will allow people with tattoos to bathe only if they cover up their tattoo with a band-aid or similar. Others will outright allow anyone, tattoo or no tattoo, to enter their onsen.
It really does depend on the onsen, so if you’ve got a tattoo, don’t forget to check up on their policy before heading there to avoid any awkwardness or disappointment.
Once you’re done with your bathing experience (some people last under 60 minutes, others can last hours!), remember it’s always nice to stick around and relax some more. Most places will have small intimate bars to have a drink in. Others will have lounging areas for you to unwind in.
All in all, your body will feel incredibly languid after this experience.
Now that you’re aware of what onsen etiquette is like, tell us, when are you going?