I had my first Onsen experience in 2014 at Sheraton Grande Hotel in Miyazaki. By then I had already visited Japan a couple of times and thought it was time I try out Japan’s famous Onsen culture. I was quite apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. The thought of being naked in front of other people was quite scary. Nonetheless, I decided to pluck up my courage and do it, thinking to myself they were all strangers and I’d never see those people again! That began my first plunge into Onsen and my love for Onsen grew from there.
I’ll be covering the below in this post:
• What is Onsen?
• Mix Gender Onsen
• There is Onsen and there is Hot Bath – what is the difference?
• Community Public Bath
• Manners and etiquette when using an Onsen
• Where to Onsen?
• Layout of an Onsen at a Ryokan/Onsen Hotel and how to use the Onsen Facilities
• I have a tattoo, can I still use the Onsen?
• Other Onsen Info
• Ling’s Tips
What is Onsen?
Onsen = おんせん = 温泉 = Hot Spring Bath
It is also referred to as 湯 or 汤 (pronounced as “yu” for hot water) and sometimes written as ゆ (yu) or denoted by a hot spring sign ♨️
Onsen is a bath filled with water from a natural hot spring. As Japan has many volcanoes and geothermal activities in the country, there is no lack of natural hot spring waters. Natural hot spring baths are found all over Japan.
There are many types of natural hot spring water depending on the location you visit. Some hot spring water are clear, some cloudy after it interacts with air and some more sulfuric smell. Hot spring water has many minerals and supposedly good for the body, healing several ailments. Many of the famous Hot Spring areas in Japan have a legend of a wounded Crane that recovered after soaking in the local hot spring water. Japan seems to have quite a lot of wounded cranes, don’t you think?
There is Onsen and there is Hot Bath – what is the difference?
Hot Bath is just bath with hot water, not natural hot spring water. There is usually no natural minerals or healing properties for a normal Hot Bath except to relief tired and sore muscles.
In Japan, Onsens are regulated to ensure good sanitary cleanliness and authenticity, thus not everyone could call their hot bath an Onsen. There was a scandal a couple of years ago where it was discovered that many of the so-called Onsen didn’t use water from natural hot spring, but was just heated up tap water. The Japan Onsen Association has since tighten the requirements and conducts regular reviews to ensure standards are kept. However, the term Onsen has been loosely used by many to reference a Hot Bath.
Manners and etiquette when using an Onsen
When using the Onsen in Japan, there are a number of rules and etiquette that one should observed:
Don’t stare at others. Yup, don’t look, it’s considered rude. You won’t want someone to be staring at your naked body, right?
No photography. Please don’t take photos of other Onsen visitors. Would you like someone to take photos of your naked body as a souvenir keepsake? Of course not.
No running or playing around. Do not jump into the Onsen or splash water around. The floor can be slippery, and you don’t want to get into an accident when you’re naked.
Do not wear any shoes or slippers into the Onsen area. Hygiene is very important as the Onsen is a shared facility.
You must be totally naked. No swimsuit, only birthday suit. (There are only a handful of Onsen located in very open places where swimsuits are allowed.)
Sit down to shower and clean yourself at the washing area before going into the Onsen. Do not wash yourself in the Onsen or stand up to shower to avoid splashing water on others.
Tie up your hair if you have long hair. Don’t let your hair touch the Onsen water or immerse your head into the hot spring water.
Don’t put the small towel into the hot spring bath. Put the towel on your head if you can’t find a place to leave by the side.
Dry yourself well before stepping back into the Changing Area to avoid leaving puddles of water. (More information below – How to dry off with just 1 small towel?)
Check with the Onsen especially if you have large tatoos. (For more information refer below – I have a tattoo, can I use the Onsen?)
Don’t worry if unable to remember all these rules as there is usually an explanation sheet or sign for foreign tourists at the Ryokan/Onsen Hotel to remind you.