Onsen Etiquette: 7 Basic Rules for Hot Springs in Japan

train suite shiki shima journey to japan banner small

Most Americans only take one trip to Japan in their life, which is completely understandable given its position on the other side of the globe. This is why you absolutely must visit an onsen, a geothermally heated spring with water that contains multiple beneficial minerals —you’ll never have find another experience like this anywhere else in the world.

Japanese onsen have been in use since before records were kept. Thousands can be found throughout all of the country’s home islands. Onsen can be either free-standing or attached to a hotel or ryokan. The pools are, more often than not, separated by gender, either through partitions, separate bathing areas, or alternating bathing times.

onsen japan man
John S. Lander/Getty Images

Onsen, however, are not water parks or bathhouses. They are places of leisure, peaceful meditation, light socializing, and regulations. Yes, like almost everything else in Japan, there are strict rules of onsen etiquette one must follow when visiting.

So, before you strip down and dive into a pool full of volcanically heated spring water, take heed of the often unspoken onsen etiquette and protocol, because the last thing you want is to be kicked out just when you’ve reached maximum relaxation.

7 Rules for Visiting a Japanese Onsen

Rule No. 1: Wash Before Entering the Onsen

Most onsen will have a shower area — in or just outside the bathing area — where you are required to wash your body. Entering an onsen with soap, dirt, or sweat on your body is unacceptable and grounds for dismissal from the spring. Take this moment as an opportunity to thoroughly scrub yourself down and think of it as a preparation for a full-body skin treatment. After all, the spring is full of natural compounds and minerals that are great for the skin.

Rule No. 2: You Must be Completely Naked

There is no way around this one. In Japan, clothing, towels, and any other garment that may be worn are considered sullied or “dirty” and should never, ever be brought into an onsen. Nudity is thus expressly required, but really, it’s no big deal. If you’ve ever had to shower in gym class (who hasn’t), nudity in an onsen is much less embarrassing because a) you’re no longer a squeaky-voiced teen, b) no one cares what you look like, and C) you definitely won’t get towel-snapped. That being said, some onsen will allow for bathing suits, but this is very rare (and such an onsen will usually not provide the most authentic experience).

onsen towel bucket
Iplan/Getty Images

Rule No. 3: Modesty is Appreciated

While nudity is required, modesty is expected. Use your small towel to casually hide your nether regions as you move from changing room to shower to onsen and back again. You’ll notice most Japanese men and women will be doing the same.

Rule No. 4: Never Dip Your Towel in the Water

This harks back to Rule No. 2. and the notion that towels are dirty and should not come into contact with the water. Most people simply wear the small cloth they are given when checking in to the onsen on their heads. It may look funny, but it’s the easiest way to not lose your towel and not dirty the water at the same time. When everyone else is doing it, you won’t feel as ridiculous sitting in a 110-degree tub with a towel on your head.

Rule No. 5: Don’t Go Under (Or Get Your Hair in the Water)

It’s pretty much forbidden to dunk your head under the water in an onsen — and for good reason. No one wants mouth germs floating around in an environment where bacteria thrive. It’s also a good idea never to dip your hair into the water, mostly to prevent oils and residual grooming products from dirtying the water, but also to simply keep hair out of the baths drains (they do drain and clean them often).

japanese onsen

Rule No. 6: No Tattoos

Sorry, but this is a big no-no in a country where most people still associate tattoos with Japan’s mafia, the Yakuza. If you’ve got small tattoos that can be covered with a waterproof bandage, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting in, but if you’re tatted from head to toe, your best bet for visiting an onsen is to book a private one through a ryokan. Some onsen around Tokyo are specifically geared toward foreigners and thus are more lenient when it comes to tattoos (and nudity, as mentioned above), but they are few and far between.

Rule No. 7: Stay and Relax After your Dip

Most onsen have areas where you can relax after your stay in the hot spring. From hot sand rooms to small bars to lounge areas with massaging chairs and glasses of Kirin or sake, these facilities are the cherry on top of the onsen cake, and you should take advantage of them while you can. Where else are you going to be able to nap under a pile of heated sand? Only in Japan!

Editor’s Note: This article is part of The Manual’s  Journey to Japan travel guide. Our writers had the pleasure of experiencing Japan in its many forms, from high-rise bars in Tokyo to traditional tea-ceremonies in Kyoto. We hope this series of articles will not only inform but inspire you to take your own trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. Article originally published October 31, 2017.


Find a Laid-Back Retreat for a Surfing Adventure in the Heart of Portugal

To catch some of the best waves in the world, head to Portugal’s central coast and make Noah Surf House your base camp.
Food & Drink

How to Use a French Press Coffee Maker

Learning how to use a French press coffee maker is a valuable life skill. Get everything you need to know about that life skill right here.
Food & Drink

How to Order a Martini Like You Know What You’re Doing

you don't have to be James Bond to order this classic cocktail with style.

The Best Waterproof Dry Bags for Your Wet and Wild Outdoor Adventures

When life takes you far, far off-trail, your gear demands a legit dry bag.

The Curtain London is Shoreditch and the East End’s Hottest Hotel

With a great location, spacious and comfortable rooms, and a rooftop pool to die for, The Curtain London is the perfect London base for singles or couples.

The Best Travel and Adventure Documentaries on Netflix Right Now

If you're reading this, you're staring at a screen. Wouldn't you rather be exploring a different part of the world than the Internet?

Why Vancouver and Tofino Should Be Your Introduction to Exploring British Columbia

For an easy introduction to B.C., consider starting in the major city of Vancouver and heading over to the tiny, yet wildly impressive surf town of Tofino.

Is 11 Cadogan Gardens the Most British Hotel in London? Indubitably, Old Chap

Located within four separate Victorian townhouses, 11 Cadogan Gardens offers ideal British hospitality.

10 Father’s Day Gifts for Your Travel-Loving Pops

For the sophisticated, traveling dads in your life, your Father's Day shopping begins here.

Bose’s New Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700 Will be Great for Travel

Tune out screaming babies and chatty seatmates with the world's best noise-canceling tech.

Compete for $1 Million in National Geographic’s Gritty, Nonstop Race to the Center of the Earth

Four teams will race to a buoy in the center of the ocean with $1 million inside. Applications are open now.

Let a Local Expert Plan Your Next Trip with a Personalized Travel Guide from ViaHero

Leave your trip planning to someone who knows your destination better than anyone: An actual local.

4 Reasons Why You Should Visit Bowling Green, Kentucky

Here are a few activities, eateries, drinkeries (not a word but just go with it), and spots you've just gotta see if you're in Bowling Green.

Graduate Hotels’ $400 Hall Pass Promises a Month of Unlimited Stays this Summer

If you’ve been daydreaming about the vanlife this summer, why not upgrade with an entire month of legit hotel stays?