If you’re traveling to Japan, an onsen is an unmissable cultural activity. You’ll find these facilities all across the country, and I recommend you embrace any chance you get to experience them.
Technically, the term “onsen” refers to a Japanese hot spring. Colloquially, onsen can refer to the types of heated bathing and relaxation facilities one finds at many traditional Japanese inns. Whether it’s an official onsen or not, if you’re using a bathing facility in Japan you’ll want to do a bit of research beforehand.
An onsen is easy to get the hang of, and once you’ve gone once you’ll be hooked! Here are some key points that you should know in advance of your first onsen experience.
If you’re using an onsen for the first time and don’t speak Japanese, it can be difficult to know what to do with yourself. While procedures may vary slightly within individual onsen, here is a general step by step guide – follow this and you won’t go too far wrong.
1. Remove your shoes before you enter the building. The onsen will have a place for you to store these – if the storage place isn’t clear upon entry, gently gesture towards the shoes you are holding and the staff will be able to direct you. Bring coins in case the option is a coin-operated locker.
2. Pay entrance fee. I can’t give you a ballpark figure for this, as the price will depend on factors such as your location and the style of the onsen.
3. Go into the changing room. These are segregated by gender, and signage will indicate which room is which. Write down the kanji for male and female in case there is no English translation.
4. Once in the changing room, suss out the storage situation. It might be lockers or traditional baskets. Whatever it is, pick an empty one and put your belongings into it. Even if you brought a sports bag or something similar to hold your clothes, put it into the storage system provided – the Japanese like order! Oh, and do have to take all your clothes off – but don’t panic! More on this later. If you’re wearing make-up be sure to remove it at this point – you want your pores to get the full benefits of the experience.
5. Shower first! The onsen isn’t there to clean you – it’s there as a relaxation space. You should be extremely clean before entering the communal onsen – this is one thing you will be judged heavily for otherwise, and rightly so. Onsen facilities will have some sort of shower or kakeyu (where you splash hot water over yourself) to use before entering the water. If you’re not sure where this is, hang back until someone else is leaving the changing room too – they’ll go through the ritual and you can just copy.
6. Get in the water and relax! If you’re in a group, keep your conversations hushed. While the novelty of the experience may make you a little bit giggly at first, your fellow bathers are chilling out and expect quiet.
7. Leave the bath when you’re ready – head back to the changing room and get dried off. Be sure not to leave a mess or excess puddles. If you used an onsen towel, there will generally be a clearly marked basket to drop it into. Return your storage basket neatly and don’t leave anything behind. Oh, and don’t forget to grab your shoes on the way out!
Is Onsen Mixed Gender?
The vast majority of onsen in modern times are segregated by gender. There are some mixed-gender onsen in Japan, but they really are few and far between – they are actually banned in Tokyo.
If you’re traveling as part of a heterosexual couple or just a mixed group of friends, you might prefer to experience the onsen together. In that case, you might look into the option of private onsen – though the atmosphere isn’t really the same, and they tend to be significantly more expensive.
The question of how a transgender person might be received in a traditional onsen is a very valid one, and I’m sorry to say that as a cis-gendered person I can’t really give an informed answer to this. What I do know, however, is that this conversation is happening in Japan and many onsens are actively trialing options that might make their policies more welcoming to transgender users. Check out this article for just one example.
Can I Wear My Swimsuit?
No, you must use an onsen completely nude. If you try to wear a swimsuit, the staff most likely won’t let you in. Even if they did, would you really want to be the only person clothed in a room full of naked people?
Joking aside, it can be scary to completely strip off in a public place as a Westerner. For many of us, nudity has shameful or sexual connotations. Let me emphatically assure you, nobody is going to look twice at your body in a Japanese onsen. These facilities are used by people of all ages and sizes – nobody has a perfect body, and nobody expects you to have one either. If you have body image hang-ups, an onsen is a really positive and affirming opportunity for you to see just how normal you actually are!
There’s also nothing sexual about the onsen experience. I’ve never heard of someone getting an inappropriate advance in an onsen – if that were to happen, it would be so against onsen etiquette that the person making you uncomfortable would be swiftly removed.
In short, don’t you dare let a fear of nudity hold you back from this incredible and authentic Japanese experience.
What about Body Hair?
For females, Japanese women usually remove body hair – except for pubic hair. Many Western women do remove their pubic hair, so this might attract some curiosity and the odd polite question. On the other side, many Western women choose not to shave other parts of their body hair, such as armpits. If this is you, you might again attract some curiosity from your fellow bathers – but nothing more than that.
For males, Japanese men tend to naturally have less body hair than other ethnic groups. If you are a hairy person (ie if you have thick hair on your chest, back, etc) you may attract some curiosity. However, there is no obligation to remove it.
There’s no rule stating what to do about body hair, so it’s really however you feel most comfortable.
Can I go with a Tattoo?
There is some onsens that are tattoo-accepting — but the majority are not. If you have small tattoos, you will generally be okay if you cover them. Many onsens have skin-colored bandages available for this very reason. Alternatively, you could wet a towel and lay it over your tattoo.
For more detail on tattoo acceptance in Japanese onsen, check out this article.
What’s the Temperature Like?
Onsen water is warm – typically between 39 to 42 degrees Celcius. Some fancier onsen facilities will have baths of varying temperatures so that you can cycle between them.
How Long Should I Stay?
Etiquette-wise, there’s no guideline on how long is appropriate to stay in the onsen. Health-wise, the heat makes it very easy to become dehydrated or faint if you stay in too long. As a general guideline, you might want to step out of the water every ten to fifteen minutes. Stretch your legs, get a drink, check that you’re feeling okay, and then pop back in. It’s a pretty blissful way to spend an afternoon!