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A guide to Japanese baths and onsen etiquette

A guide to Japanese baths and onsen etiquette

Food is high on the list for people visiting Japan and who can blame them? But to totally immerse yourself in Japanese culture, you really want to get on top of the country’s onsen etiquette. Japanese for hot springs, where water is heated to temperatures from between 37-42C by volcanic influences, they are hot. But they are also areas to keep your cool, as these are totally Zen zones, layered in tradition and ritual, and high on the agenda for Japanese people as a way to swap stress for steeping. 

There are over 3,000 hot spring or onsen towns across Japan’s islands and, consequently, onsens feature on most of our Japan tours, a relaxing tradition that is part of the Japanese DNA. Here are our top tips on respecting onsen etiquette, whether you’re at outdoor natural springs (rotemburo), or indoors at a traditional guesthouse’s thermal baths (ryokan). Or indeed at a sento, which is a communal public bathhouse, where the water is still heated, but not geothermally. 

Hot spring at Yunomine, a village near Hongu which you pass through on our Kumano Kodo walkking holiday.

Always soap before you soak

Onsens are not for washing in. You do that before you bathe, and there are always showers beside the bathing area for you to do so. A lovely feature of Japanese showers is the hinoki bath stool, where people plonk themselves to wash their hair and body. This is because it causes less splashing but also it’s more comfortable for many, and so the washing experience starts as a restful one from the get-go. Make sure you use plenty of cleaning products, usually provided, and you may see a lot of exfoliating cloths in use too. The most important thing is to show that you have totally cleansed and also rinsed properly before dipping in the healing waters. Scrub and scrub again. Then use the bucket to rinse yourself from top to toe. It’s a wonderful exercise in washfulness. 

Put your modesty in a locker

It’s not just for one night only that you do the Full Monty in Japan. Going nudey is the norm. However, onsens are gender segregated and, if they are indoors, often only divided by curtains. These all important dividers are called noren, and there is a nationwide colour coding that leads you to your area. Red curtained onsens are for women, and blue for men. They do usually have the kanji figures on them too, which represent women or men, so you can swot up on those in advance. There are also some onsens that have become more like water parks, and in these ones swimwear is worn. Many people do bring a clean flannel or small hand towel with them into the baths for modesty while walking around, and they are also provided in the onsen. It’s not uncommon to see people putting these on their heads while they are in the water. This is to keep their heads cool, if they have soaked it in advance, and it’s also a handy place to keep it while in the water, of course. It’s worth noting that some onsens also have private rooms if you prefer to soak solo. 

At peace in nature, wearing our most natural outfits.

The politics of cleanliness 

Japanese traditions and rituals go back centuries and change can be slow. Although it’s controversial, it’s still not considered appropriate in onsen etiquette for women to bathe there while on her period. This is because, historically, in Shinto culture, blood is seen as taboo. Although you won’t see signs about it, culturally it’s a complex issue but times are changing, thankfully, and it’s now commonly debated and relegated to ancient history amongst younger generations. As a traveller, it’s a personal choice of course, but wearing a tampon or menstrual cup is the way to go if you’re joining the movement to break down those barriers. 

Similarly, tattoos are sometimes taboo in onsens and some strict baths don’t allow people who have them to enter. Although this isn’t always the case, be sure to ask before you go. And this one is more common sense, you should always tie up your hair if it’s long and never submerge totally to put your hair in the water. 

Pace yourself 

Immersing yourself slowly into the mineral-rich water is part of the ritual of the onsen, and should be done slowly and mindfully. This process of immersing yourself from the neck down is called zenshin-yoku. For people with health issues such as high blood pressure, they may opt for only going in from the waist down, and this is called hanshin-yoku. The maximum time recommended for bathing is 30mins, although 15mins if plenty for most people. Keep it slow, and remember this isn’t a swimming pool. It’s a place to slow down and soak it all in. 

Experiencing the rotenburo open-air baths is the way to go though, especially in cooler weather as you experience the steam coming up off the water, and you don’t overheat so easily. Do be careful as you may feel dizzy when you get out of an onsen, and so take time out in the rest area to let your system cool down a bit. It’s also very important to drink plenty of water, at room temperature, before you go into the bath. And of course, drink plenty of water afterwards too.

The rotenburo open-air baths are the way to go, especially in cooler months, when the steam rises and your stress along with it.

After an onsen

Most local people leave the minerals to do their thing and don’t wash them off, but simply dry their bodies with their towels. This is done in the bathing area, as dripping is not the done thing in onsen changing rooms. There will be a place to eat or drink at most onsens, with common drinks including cold milk, with variations including cooling fruit milks and coffee-flavoured milk. Avoid drinking alcohol for at least a few hours and, ideally, for 24 hours if possible. 

Detox on all levels

Although Japan is very tech-led in many ways, the onsen is a place to have a digital detox, with no phones or photographs allowed. It’s also a place of peace, so don’t be too loud with no screeching or splashing. Although smiling is very much allowed in these blissful, mindful places. 

Onsens are places of peace. No phones, no photos please.

Where to bathe

Onsens, whether they are public outdoor ones or quieter bathhouses attached to traditional inns or ryokans, do feature on many of our tours. For example, while walking on the Shikoku Pilgrim Trail, you visit Dogo Onsen, one of Japan’s oldest hot springs, and its handsome, three-story wooden structure was designated as a National Important Cultural Property in 1994. While walking the Nakasendo Trail, you have daily onsen treats as accommodation is in hot-spring ryokan inns every night. Similarly, on the Kumano Kodo walking holiday, there are several opportunities to bathe, such as at Yunomine Onsen, another of the country’s oldest hot spring villages, or Kawayu Onsen which has thermal waters bubbling up through the Oto River, a tributary of the River Kumano-gawa. You can dig your own hole and bathe river-style, or soak in the bath houses that line the river. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed your dip into Japanese bathing culture and learned something new about onsen etiquette. Please don’t hesitate to contact our adventure specialists about any of our Japan tours and also take a look at our blog, Best time to go to Japan.