For a prude like myself the thought of bathing naked with a bunch of strangers terrifies me. It was not until my third visit to Japan this week, under the guidance of an Aussie expat who lives in Tokyo, that I plucked up the courage to try the Japanese tradition of soaking nude at an onsen and I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the most natural, authentic and relaxing experiences I’ve had in Japan and I would definitely try it again now I have the knowledge of how to do so correctly. For anyone else thinking of taking the plunge, here’s my guide to onsen etiquette in Japan.
What Is An Onsen?
An onsen is a traditional Japanese bathhouse where you can soak in hot spring waters. Due to its volcanic activity, Japan has dozen of onsen scattered around the country, some of which were established hundreds of years ago. The legal definition of an onsen includes the requirement that its water contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including minerals such as iron and sulfur. The health benefits of each pool will vary according to its mineral content but onsens are thought to help with certain skin conditions and joint pain. In my experience it certainly helps soothes sore muscles, gave my skin a softness that lasted for days and kept me warm for the whole evening in the cold of winter.
How To Bathe At An Onsen
There is a certain etiquette to using an onsen that can be quite intimidating for a first-timer. I’ll try to describe as clearly as possible what to expect.
- At a traditional onsen you have to bathe naked. Most onsen have separate facilities for men and women but some of the older inns may have mixed baths so it’s worth double-checking beforehand.
- Many onsen are attached to a guesthouse or hotel who will include notes in the room about the rules for the onsen. They will provide a yukata robe for you to wear to the bathhouse (often left on the bed) as well as a small towel to take with you. (You can hire these items if your hotel doesn’t include them.)
- Change into your yukata before going to the onsen. (Note the correct way to wear them is for the left side to be on top – the opposite is reserved for the dead!) You may keep your underwear on underneath and remove them in the changing rooms. Take a small towel for using in the bathhouse as well as a large towel for drying afterwards. Wear the slippers that are supplied in the room.
- Before entering the bathhouse you will need to leave your slippers outside. Make sure you remove them before stepping onto the onsen floor. Usually there will be a basket or shelf for you to place them in.
- Once inside the changing room it’s time to get over your fears and remove that robe! You’ll come across many breezily naked ladies as soon as you enter the dressing room so it feels more normal then you would expect to de-robe yourself. Leave your neatly folded robe and underwear in a basket or locker and enter the bathhouse with just a small towel that you can use to cover your modesty.
- It is most important that you wash thoroughly before entering the water. At one side of the bathhouse will be a row of low showers and stools that you sit on facing the wall. (There is sometimes a shower cubicle too which you can use if you’d rather wash in private). Most bathhouses provide shower gel and soap but you can bring your own if you prefer. The most important thing is that you wash thoroughly and are seen to do so – the other bathers need to know that you are clean. If you use the stool make sure you wash it down after using it.
- Then you are ready for a dip! Note that the waters are much hotter than most Jacuzzis so you must enter the water slowly. Some outdoor onsen will have buckets you can use to pour the hot water on your skin before getting in. The important thing is to take it slowly and not rush because you are cold/embarrassed of being naked.
- Fold up the small towel you used to cover yourself and place it on your head when in the water. Make sure it doesn’t get wet or enter the water.
- And then enjoy! The waters feel seriously soothing on aching muscles and there is something so magical about soaking in hot waters in the middle of the mountains.
Things To Note
- Don’t soak for too long, especially on your first go. (5 to 10 minutes at a time is recommended.) Raise yourself out of the water or sit on the side if you begin to feel too hot.
- Move very slowly when you come out of the bath. (“Think slow and delicate as an old lady”, my friend advised me.) Your heart may be racing after the raised temperatures so move very slowly and sit or stand in the cool air for a few minutes if you need to bring your temperature back down to normal. I foolishly did not do this after my first soak and had a fainting spell (like a rookie!) on the way back to my room.
- Dry yourself off before heading back into the changing room. It’s considered rude to drip all over the changing area.
- It felt far more normal than I imagined to bathe naked with strangers! The Japanese women I encountered were far too busy with their own bathing rituals to worry about my pasty body, or at least that’s the impression I got! Because you can use a small towel to cover your lady parts it’s mostly a lot of bums and boobies that are on show but everyone is respectful enough not to stare at each other. I do recommend going with a friend if you are feeling self-conscious as it’s good to have someone to talk to – just remember to keep eye contact at all times!
- Tattoos are prohibited in the onsen. (An ancient custom to do with gangs, I believe.) If you have small tattoos some bathhouses will be happy if you cover them with a plaster but if you’re covered in ink you’re not usually allowed to bathe. Some places are more lenient for foreigners but it is best to ask beforehand.
The Best Onsen To Visit
My favourite are the outdoor onsen found in the mountains where you can bathe surrounded by freshly falling snow. The more traditional onsens will feature wooden beams and soflty lit lamps and the experience feels completely timeless – once everyone is stripped to their birthday suits it’s easy to imagine you’re in the Samurai ages.
Some of the stunning onsen I’ve visited include:
Tsurunoyu Onsen – The oldest onsen in the Nyuto Onsen Village near Akita. Tsurunoyu has 7 indoor and outdoor pools including magical-looking milky ones backed by snowy mountains. You can stay at this onsen in the traditional samurai lodges that have been converted into ryokan accommodation.
Sukayu Onsen – Nestled in the Hakkoda Mountains, Sukayu Onsen received Japan’s very first designation as a hot spring for health preservation. They have a somewhat rare mixed sex pool where the whole family can bathe together.
Grandeco Ski Resort – Just a few hours outside of Tokyo is the powder soft snow of Grandeco Ski Resort – much loved by beginners and the elderly. They have an onsen with indoor and outdoor pools that are perfect for soaking sore muscles after a day on the slopes.
Spa Resort Hawaiians – For an onsen experience with a difference, Hawaiians is a Hawaiian themed spa resort and hotel in Fukushima. They have a huge waterpark and waterslides that are great for kids as well as rooftop hottubs that use onsen water, and a traditional Japanese style outdoor onsen that is one of the largest in the country.
Oedo Onsen Monogatari – For an onsen experience in the middle of Tokyo check out this Edo-style onsen theme park! Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a good place for first timers as they have personal cedar wood baths for women that you can soak in solo whilst getting used to the concept. There is also a Japanese style garden with a footbath that stimulates pressure points on the feet and a dining area at the centre of the complex where both sexes can hang out in their yukata.
So are you ready to take the plunge? Have you been to an onsen? What did you think?
Thanks to jnto.org.au and Tokyo Convention and Visitors Bureau who supported my trips to Tokyo and the Tohoku region. Note: photography is usually forbidden in the onsen – we received special permission to take these photos.