Bathing at an onsen (hotspring / public bath) in Japan is almost like a ritual in itself and is one of the favourite pastimes for the Japanese. Many foreigners will find it an interesting experience, but some will shy away from going (like my Mum!) as they are uncomfortable with the idea of going to a communal bath, dressed in nothing but your birthday suit.
There is certain protocol to be followed when taking a bath at the onsen, otherwise you may find yourself being told off by the locals, or worse – banned from the premises!
Here are some examples of the signages which can be found at some of the onsens (not all will have them), which give a summary of the rules to be followed:
For those of you who need a step-by-step guide, read on…
Typically there will be a curtain (noren) at the entrance to the public baths and there are separate baths according to gender – pink or red is for the women’s bath (女), whilst typically blue or other colour (not pink/red) is for the men’s bath (男), unless it is a mixed bath (these are mostly found in the rural areas).
These are some examples from different hotspring baths that I had previously visited:
In most hotels, there is usually a shoe rack located either before or after the curtains and you are expected to leave your shoes there. Do remember where you have left your footwear, otherwise you will be hunting for them later. At certain facilities, the various sections on the shoe rack are numbered to help you to remember.
Usually at bigger bath houses, you will leave your shoes in lockers found at the entrance to the building. Remember to take the key with you (wristband).
You will be given a large bath towel and a smaller face towel – these will either be issued to you at the onsen or if you’re a hotel guest, you may be asked to bring the towels from your room to the bath.
Upon entering, you will find yourself in the changing area which looks something like this…
Some places do provide lockers to keep your valuables. If you use them, make sure you take the locker key with you (wristband).
You are required to shed all your clothing, including undergarments and leave them in the straw baskets on the shelves (yes, basically you are stark naked!). The large bath towel is also to be left here in the basket. Take note of the number on the shelf which corresponds to your basket so that you can remember where you had left your clothes!
Note that only the small face towel can be brought with you into the bathing area.
The shower area is typically divided into separate stalls, each with its own tap and shower head, all basic bathing necessities (i.e. shower gel, shampoo and conditioner) and an overturned bucket on a stool.
Find a space which is unoccupied, remove the bucket and sit on the stool (if you’re afraid that it isn’t clean, you may want to rinse the stool before sitting on it). You can start by adjusting the tap to your desired water temperature and fill the bucket up.
Take your bath whilst seated (it is bad manners to stand and splash your shower water at other bathers) and ensure that you have rinsed off all the soap from your body before you head over to dip in the onsen (i.e. hot spring). It isn’t a good idea either to be dripping with water all the way from the shower area into the onsen, so you can use the small towel to wipe yourself just enough to ensure that you are not dripping wet. In addition, wash and rinse your small towel and wring it dry before heading over to dip in the onsen.
Pour away all used water in the bucket and rinse it clean. Also as courtesy to other bathers, before you leave the shower stall, do rinse the stool which you’ve sat on and place the overturned bucket on top of the stool.
Ok, now you are ready to take a dip in the onsen pools…
As the water is usually very hot (average temperature typically varies between 38-42 degrees celsius), step into the water slowly and lower yourself gradually into the water so that your body will be accustomed to high temperature. You can fold the small towel neatly and either leave it at the side of the bath or place it on top of your head (to help you to cool down).
DO NOT soak or dip the small towel into the onsen waters as this is considered unhygienic!
DO NOT jump or dive into the water, as these are not swimming pools and you will be considered as a public nuisance!! Swimming is frowned upon too! You are supposed to sit there and enjoy soaking in the hot water.
Ladies with long hair will need to ensure that they either tie it up or bun it up, so that their hair does not touch the water.
All onsens will have indoor baths and some pools have a glass panel window for you to look out and admire the scenery (limited view).
Some places also have outdoor baths, called rotenburo and you can enjoy soaking with a view of the outdoors and breathing in the fresh air.
You may think I’m crazy but my personal preference is to go dip in the rotenburo especially in winter! Initially when you step outdoors it will be freezing cold, but once your body is immersed in the hot water, it is absolutely bliss and your body will feel warm, although your face will still be cold as it is above the water. I don’t like staying in the indoor baths for too long as I will feel suffocated, due to the fact that it can be quite stuffy with all the steam trapped indoors.
You should only soak in the water for about 10 min – any longer and you run the risk of fainting.
There was one time when a friend and I were happily trying out different baths at a hotspring theme park when all of a sudden both of us felt giddy and a little nauseous, so we had to get out of the water and sit for a while on a bench to cool down. It’s the same feeling if you stay in the sauna for too long. However, everyone’s body may have different tolerance levels, so please use your own discretion.
When you’re done with the soaking, you can choose whether to return to the shower area to rinse your body or just head back to the changing room.
Typically, you shouldn’t shower again after soaking in the onsen if you want to ensure the minerals contained in the water will be fully absorbed by your skin. However, people with sensitive skin may find the need to rinse off, especially at sulphuric springs.
Ensure that your body is sufficiently dry before you step back into the changing room as you don’t want to be dripping wet and leave a puddle on the floor of the changing room, which may then cause others to slip and fall. You can use your small towel to try to wipe your body sufficiently dry before you step back in.
Back in the changing room, head back to the basket with all your clothing and use the big towel to dry yourself completely before wearing your clothes. Note that you will still be feeling hot (i.e. body temperature) after the bath and may want to cool your body down a little (by standing in front of the fan or by drinking cold water) before donning your clothes, otherwise you may perspire.
Disposable combs and hairbrushes are provided, as are cotton buds, cotton squares, toner and moisturizer. Hairdryers are also available for use if required. Just take a seat in front of the washbasins and help yourself.
If you had taken the towels from the onsen premises, you can return your towels to the basket labelled as “Used Towels”. However, if you are using the onsen in your hotel and brought the room towels with you, do bring the towels back to your room where you can hang them up to dry.
Typically, complimentary iced water will be provided, either in the changing room area or just outside the entrance to the onsen. You may feel thirsty and dehydrated after the soaking in the hotsprings, so do remember to replenish your fluids.
At most of the onsens, you will find a normal water dispenser, but some places could get a little creative with their presentation.
Important Things to Note:
- Persons with tattoos on your body are not permitted to enter, as tattoos are considered to be a mark of belonging to the underworld (e.g. mafia). Some places may allow you in if your tattoo is small enough to be covered up with a sticker/plaster, so that it isn’t visible to others. For those with large tattoos, you will need to rent a private bath for a fee, or book a hotel room which has its own private onsen.
- Do not enter if you feel unwell.
- Those suffering from High Blood Pressure are advised not to go into the baths but if you do so, you should only submerge your body up to waist level and leave your upper body (i.e. where your heart is) out of the water. The reason is that the heat will cause your blood pressure to raise and may trigger a heart attack. Thus, persons with such conditions can still go, but at their own risk.
- Ladies only – if it’s that time of the month, for hygiene reasons and courtesy to other guests, please do not enter the onsen baths.
- Please do not talk loudly, splash around in the pools and basically make a nuisance of yourself.
- Photography is not permitted in the onsens, for obvious reasons, as you need to respect the privacy of others. For the purpose of this write-up, I had either gone to the baths at off-peak hours when there was no one in there apart from myself, or I had asked for permission to take pictures when the baths were closed for cleaning.
Now that you have familiarized yourself with the bathing etiquette, I hope that you’ll have an enjoyable time soaking in the hotspring baths in Japan!