Japanese Hot Spring Etiquette: A Guide to Visiting an Onsen
For a lot of visitors to Japan, the idea of getting into an onsen, Japanese style hot springs, can be quite daunting. There tends to be a fear of having to strip down in front of strangers, an uncertainty regarding the proper way to use the baths and doubts regarding hygiene. Below is a small break down on what you can expect when visiting an onsen, the proper way to behave, and how the facilities are kept nice and clean. We hope this information will give you that little burst of confidence needed to partake in this dearly loved Japanese pastime, that we'd highly recommend trying at least once.
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Do You Have to Be Naked?
Generally speaking, almost no onsen will allow visitors to enter the baths wearing garments, this includes swimwear. The main reason for this is to try and keep the water as clean as possible, and wearing any type of clothing is not seen as being conducive to that. However, don't let this deter you from this unique and unforgettable experience. Everyone else has to get naked as well, and like you, are there with the intent to relax and soak in the beneficial, mineral-rich waters, and not to gawk and stare. Additionally, a small towel is almost always provided. If you like you can use this as a small cover as you navigate from place to place, or alternatively, some onsen can be reserved for private use, although these tend to be a little pricier.
What's the Procedure When Using the Baths?
When you arrive at the onsen, you will either be given towels for free or for a small rental fee - one small and one large. The large towel is for drying off once you are done using the baths and should be kept in the locker area until that time. The small towel you can use to wash your body, and it is permissible to bring it with you as you soak in the water.
Regarding washing your body, this is compulsory for reasons of hygiene and must be done thoroughly in one of the showers surrounding the bath before entering the water. A small stool, shampoo, conditioner and soap will often be provided for this purpose (Japanese usually sit while washing themselves). Once you're in the bath, feel free to just kick back and relax, or chat away with a friend if you like. Rinsing off before getting dressed is a matter of preference, and the choice of whether to do so or not is entirely up to you.
As tattoos are still largely associated with organized crime in Japan, a lot of facilities such as gyms, swimming pools, public baths and onsens have regulations banning people with tattoos from using them. There are however a few ways around this such as reserving a private-use bath, or, if the tattoo isn't too big, using some type of bandaging to cover it up. With the influx of tourists coming into Japan over the last few years though, such regulations are slowly being relaxed, and a growing number of tattoo-friendly onsens can now be found by inquiring at any tourist information center, or via a quick online search.
Things You Mustn't Do At an Onsen
Getting drunk, bathing and taking pictures inside the baths along with vigorous activities such as yelling, splashing, swimming and running around are typically not allowed when you visit an onsen. This is for reasons of hygiene and safety, but also to maintain a soothing atmosphere for visitors wanting to relax and unwind in peace. As baths are separated for genders, if you can't read the Japanese characters be sure to remember that blue is usually for men and red for woman, lest you walk into the wrong section. As they generally cater towards Japanese, many onsens don't display it clearly in English.
Are the Baths Hygienic?
Some tourists remain apprehensive to the onsen experience for fear that the bath water may not be clean which is entirely understandable. However, on top of not permitting the wearing of garments in the water, and requiring visitors to bathe thoroughly before entering, the baths are drained and cleaned frequently and meticulously. The water itself is also generally kept flowing, and tends to be very hot, both of which help keep it clean and perfectly safe enough to soak in from the neck down.
One of the leading reasons for tourists - both local and international - to visit the countrysides of Japan, is for the unique, authentic and therapeutic onsen experience. With approximately 3000 hot spring resorts dotted around the country, there is no shortage of baths to chose from: outdoors, indoors, piping hot, tepid, private, public, differing in mineral content and pH, enclosed in nature or built into a pleasantly fragrant, steaming and dimly lit, tiled room. It would be a shame to visit Japan and not spend a day or two soaking in the relaxing, refreshing and healing properties of these waters which have been enjoyed by Japanese for these very same reasons for hundreds of years.