Onsen or “hot springs” have been a fixture of Japan culture for thousands of years. While their popularity with foreign guests is welcome, like most traditions here, there are strict rules. The culture of being clean (and to the locals, healthy) is not unique to Japan, but this style of bathing is and ... well, it can seem intimidating the first time around. The rules are not as difficult as you might imagine though and if you forget, don’t worry, many onsens now post rules in English in changing areas. After many years living in the country here are my top tips on navigating hot springs etiquette in Japan, a worthwhile read before dipping your toes into those steaming waters.
Know your Onsen
The range of public baths in Japan starts from a simple sento, or bathhouse. Locals without baths in their homes visit these daily. Though basic, a neighborhood sento may offer a choice of salty, milky, or just hot water. They’re inexpensive, clean and for the adventurous, worth a try. At the other end of the onsen scale are genuine hot springs, offering a variety of bathing pools, temperatures and styles — often in luxurious surroundings. Baths are segregated by gender and you’ll be happy to know there are onsens in the hotels and Ryokan stays on our Japan tours.
No swimsuits allowed
Most Onsen are now separated by gender so not to worry. Some of you may be shy at first, but nudity for bathing in Japan carries no shame. For the more modest customers, you can use the small towel you bring for washing to cover up a bit. The Onsens have these towels available for free or to buy.
Shower before and after you bathe
Keep in mind that the baths are communal. You are sharing them with others and it is imperative that you fully clean yourself before going in the water. You will first enter a changing room where you leave your clothes in a locker. They provide a waterproof locker key bracelet that you can wear into the bath. Every Japanese hot spring has rows of showers complete with shampoo and body soap to wash off before entering the bath area. When entering the bath area only take the small washing towel with you. Most upscale Onsen will provide the small towels along with a bigger bath towel to dry off after, and they will be in your hotel room if you are staying at an Onsen hotel.
Keep your hair and towel out of the bathwater
Another way to help keep the water clean is by tying long hair up in a bun or a small towel. If you don't have one, towels are usually available to buy or rent for just a couple of dollars (sometimes they are free but bring some change just in case). Refrain from putting your head underwater while bathing and put your towel either on top of your head or on the side of the bath.
Tsurunoyu Onsen, Akita Japan has been used for over 300 years
Know the tattoo policy
Traditionally, people with tattoos are forbidden from entering the onsen, though in recent years this has become less strictly enforced. It is at the discretion of the onsen staff. Generally, a small tattoo that can be simply covered is easy to get away with, but larger, more visible tattoos might prevent you from being allowed to enter. Skin-colored medical tape is recommended to cover small tattoos.
Follow the snow monkeys - quiet, chilled relaxation. Onsen in Hakodate, Japan
Please don’t be obnoxious inside
The hot spring is a place of tranquility; while it is certainly okay to talk amongst yourselves, it is not meant to be treated like a public pool in your home country. Avoid splashing and making loud noises while bathing.
Cyan Hotsprint in Beppu, Japan
Don’t drink too much (or at all) before entering.
Aside from the obvious health hazards, drunk people are generally not received well by others in the Japanese hot spring. Nobody will stop you from entering just because you’ve had a few, but do try to keep your voice at a reasonable volume, and don’t fall asleep in the bath!
Once you are done relaxing and bathing. Please use the small towel to get as dry as possible before entering the changing area again. When you go back to your locker you can use a big bath towel to fully dry off.
Enjoying a cycle through scenic Kyoto.
See, the rules are not so complicated! Give it a try and you will not be disappointed. I love these baths so much I’m relaxed just writing about them. I promise you that after a full day of cycling there’s no better place to relax than a steaming hot onsen bath.
If you’re considering a cycle tour to accompany your onsen experience, check out some of our Japan cycle tours – Guests regularly rave about how good the Onsen are along the routes. Enjoy!