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, 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).
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).
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.
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