Ok, so, first of all, let me preface this by saying that I am a white, middle class, Australian girl (Woman? Adult is definitely questionable). I am not Japanese, I do not have Japanese heritage, I have not lived in Japan (although I have visited twice), you get the idea. Nevertheless, there is something that is a part of Japanese culture that appeals to my soul. As in to the very depths of my being, we are kindred spirits, ‘I feel you Japan’ type thing.
And that my friends, is visiting an onsen. Aka: sitting your nekkid butt in super hot water (ideally from mineral hot springs) for lengthy periods of time. The problem is, it seems to be a part of Japanese culture shrouded in mystery and therefore it’s very easy to look like a doofus and/or offend someone. This often means that people don’t even TRY and that is a shame because onsen are the freaking bomb, particularly after a long day of trekking around the sights.
Thus, this is my non-Japanese guide to the ins and outs of visiting an onsen. Let my bumblings and attempts to not look like a douche (spoiler: I failed) inform you! Use what you have learned Yoda style to visit an onsen like a relative pro. At the very least you shouldn’t offend someone, which is all some of us can ask for really…
NB:If any Japanese people read this and think I have gotten something drastically wrong, please leave me a note, ta!
1> Onsen= naked bathing. Like totally, bare arsed, pure as the day you were born nekkid. No swimsuits. No exceptions.
2> Onsen are therefore sex segregated, unless you book a private one, which you can usually do through a Ryokan or upmarket hotel, but it will cost you $$$. There is an exception to this- children. Children, even older ones, will attend an onsen with their parents of either gender. This means that you may see a 7 year old boy in the women’s section, or a 5 year old (or older) girl in the men’s.
Now, this can be confronting if you are not expecting it, but I cannot stress this enough- THIS IS NOT SEXUAL. Going to an onsen as a family is like going to the movies, or to go get ice-cream, and it’s about as sexual. It’s totally normal and socially acceptable in Japan, so don’t be that guy (or girl) who makes it weird, mmkay?
3>Tattoos are a big no no. They will not let you in if you have one, regardless of where it is- remember, totally nekkid, so you can’t exactly hide them. Some people have said that if it’s small you can cover it up with a bandaid and they are okay with it, but I have not had this confirmed. I know you have no hope with a large one, so be aware that with tattoos of any kind, you might be politely asked to leave, or alternatively denied entry entirely.
4> Onsen are loved by one and all. You will see families as mentioned, groups of friends, groups of businessmen, couples, and everyone in between. Age is also not a factor- you will see toddlers, as well as the elderly in the same pools. If you wish to take your child in with you, this should be fine, but be aware that they will need to be toilet trained, as no nappies etc. are allowed in the pools (they can hang around in their nappy outside though) and it is a cardinal sin to defile the pools. Also be aware that the pools are HOT (between 36-40 degrees celsius) and therefore possibly not appropriate for the very young anyway.
5> Take it from me, nobody is looking at you naked, they are enjoying the water. I have obviously never been in the mens section, but in the womens there are all manner of shapes and sizes, and nobody tends to bat an eyelid. Again, the only exception to this that I have observed is with brazillian waxing. This is not the norm in Japan as far as I know, therefore this can be treated with a degree of curiosity, and there may be some puzzled looks, but generally people keep to themselves.
6> Different pools within different onsen are said to have different properties depending on their mineral content and makeup. They are all hot, but otherwise they can vary quite extensively in terms of the smell, look, and feel (so to speak) of the water. I am not picky, as long as it’s hot I’m happy, but it’s worth investigating different options if you want a particular thing, or you want to avoid something.
7> While I would like to think I wouldn’t have to say this, people are ridiculously selfie obsessed, so I probably do: You are not allowed to take your phone in with you to the pools and photography is strictly forbidden once you get close to the changing rooms. Take a selfie outside the building if you must, but inside (even in general areas) is frowned upon. There are very few places where this is the case in Japan, but when they do say no cameras, they are extremely strict about it.
8> Some onsen have day spa like features and you can also book a massage/facial while you are there. From what I have observed this is more the larger, touristy ones, the smaller local ones are just hot pools. Worth asking though! Again, onsen visitation can be a family friendly activity, therefore this is genuine massages only, no funny business 😉
9> Linens, including yukata (japanese bathrobes) are usually provided, and part of the ticket price. You can usually hire a towel if this is not the case. They also provide toiletries- I told you, onsen are the best! If you do really want to bring your own, you will need a little towel (hand towel sized) and a big towel, shampoo, body wash/soap and a robe at a minimum.
10> Linguistic bonus: Yes, the group noun for an onsen is also onsen. Like sheep.
Okay, so you ask- I don’t have any tattoos, I’m cool with getting my kit off and I want me some hot spring action, what do I actually DO?
Here is where you must pay attention friends, for this is critical. Onsen etiquette is kind of a big deal, so you need to act as follows:
Step One: Line up quietly. Pay your entry fee. This is sometimes where they ask if you have tattoos and usually you have to sign something to say that you are ok to bathe. Take off your shoes and leave them outside.
Step Two: There will be a system of lockers, depending on the size of the onsen. You put all your big stuff e.g. bags in an outside locker. Then there is usually a second set of lockers in the changing areas for your clothes and valuables.
Step Three: If you are renting them (I advise this, it is much easier), get your towels (remember, you get a big one and a little one) and yukata from inside. Sometimes this will be given to you at the front desk.
Step Four: Enter the changing area for your gender. PAY ATTENTION TO THE SIGNS- they sometimes swap which side is for which gender at different times, or on different days, and being on the wrong side will not be easily forgiven. Remove all outer clothing and put on your yukata. No, you don’t have to be completely naked just yet. There is sometimes a third set of lockers for underwear. I would suggest removing your jewellery/watches etc at this point though, as they can be damaged by the water. Also leave your phone etc here.
Step Five: Enter the ante chamber before the pool area. Remove your yukata and underwear and put into a locker or cubby. Also put your other locker key/s if you have them in this one. Go to the bathroom here if you need to.
Step Six: Take yourself and your little towel in to the pool area. The big one is for drying yourself after. Taking a big towel in is a rookie error, and you will be treated as such.
Step Seven: This is the MOST IMPORTANT ONE. Before you step foot in a pool, you need to clean yourself. There should be stations set up near the entry way before you even get near the pools. They usually have soap, shampoo, and shower heads set up near little wooden stools that have small buckets/tubs either next to, or on top of them.
7a) Sit on the little stools and wash every single inch of your body. I really really mean it, you need to wash EVERYTHING. Your hair, your body, and your bits (back and front!). You can put water in the little tub to help with the process.
7b) Tip the water from the little tub over yourself, and place it back near the stool.
7c) Rinse the stool and the station from any excess soap etc. Try to leave the station tidy afterwards.
7d) If you have long hair it should be tied up after you have washed it.
Step Eight: Decide on which pool you wish to dip into (revelling in your badass nakedness is optional). When you reach your desired pool, step delicately- do not splash!- into the pool, keeping your towel out of the water at all times.
NB: If you really want to be an onsen badass, roll your little towel into a burrito like shape and place on your head. Apparently guys just fold it, or wear it bandanna style, but women rock the burrito.
Step Nine: Sit and enjoy the water, knowing you haven’t made an arse of yourself!
Hot tips for young players:
- No swimming, just relaxing.
- Keep your hair and towel out of the water.
- Do not under any circumstances wring your towel into the pools, this is very rude.
- Quiet contemplation is the name of the game. If you want to chat, be quiet about it.
- Hydrate! There are usually vending machines with water around.
- If you get too hot, do a quick dip into the cold pool to reset.
- Don’t be tempted to cover up with the little towel, you just look silly.
So, wtf IS the little towel for, if it’s not for drying, or for covering up? You can use it going between pools to wipe your face of sweat. Also…
Step Ten: Once you have finished e.g at the end, you use it to wipe off excess water before going to the change rooms and getting your big towel to actually dry off with. Put on your underwear and yukata again and go back to the main change rooms.
Step Eleven: Get back into your clothes. You can use all of the awesome products they usually have in the change rooms, including lotions, and hair dryers- because the Japanese have their shit together with this sort of thing.
Step Twelve: If you borrowed/rented them, return your linens to the appropriate laundry baskets. They usually have separate ones for towels and yukata. Sometimes there is one for the little towels in the antechamber before the pools. Just pay attention to the signs, and do as the locals do.
Step Thirteen: Gather all your belongings and leave, feeling relaxed!
Optional: Leave me a note if you visit/ed an onsen in Japan and tell me about how awesome it was