Dating back to the 7th century, bathing culture in Japan developed as a time for leisure. Differing from a regular bath, the onsen has special properties that involve treatments and health benefits. A Japanese legend even states how locals witnessed animals healed themselves in hot springs. Even the iconic samurais would dip in the waters to have their battle wounds treated. Onsen effects are backed by science, proving how it can improve health, battling joint pains, skin conditions, other physical struggles.

The “Onsen” has now become a popular agenda for relaxation fans, winning the hearts of locals and tourists. It is a hot spring bath enjoyed either indoors or outdoors. Onsens usually have its waters drawn from hot spring sources near volcanic areas. It has later evolved to artificial baths with ordinary heated waters and is still relished by travelers and long-time hot bath enthusiasts. Either visitors prefer rotenburos or sentos, there are rules to be observed and followed when taking a relaxing dip.

Onsen in Japan 1

Onsen Introduction

  • Some onsen facilities like bathhouses and ryokans require a person to pay an entrance fee. There also may be an additional charge for bathing necessities like shampoo, soap, and towels.
  • There is an assigned changing room for men and women. Blue curtains marked with otoko are for men, and red curtain marked with onna 女, are assigned for women.
  • Bathers must store their clothing using a locker or basket.
  • Bathers must enter the onsen without clothes, only having a hand towel.
  • Showering areas have stools and buckets, which are for use. People must clean themselves sitting down, refraining from standing to avoid splashing bathing neighbors.
  • Bathers must enter the onsen slowly and calmly. It is ideal that a person only spends around 30 minutes to avoid dizziness.
  • A person must be dry before entering the changing area. Do so by wiping the body with the hand towel.

 

Pre-Onsen Tips

  • Bathhouse facilities usually provide small and large towels for the guests, though other onsens require guests to bring their necessities or some require an additional charge.
  • Tattoos have a troubling history in Japan that affected how onsens permit its guests to bathe. This was because of the Yakuza and other gangs affiliated with crimes who decorated their bodies with tattoo displays. Around 2015, a lot of onsens have banned people who have tattoos from bathing. Nowadays, other onsens have opened up to tattoo-wearers with some conditioning guests to cover their tattoos.
  • When in a ryokan, it is considered a good manner to rest in the guest room before dipping in an onsen.
  • Not eating before bathing in an onsen is encouraged.
  • Accommodations like hotels and traditional ryokans open their onsen facilities to the public, provided that travelers pay the fee.
  • Just like in other swimming pools, guests are required to wash first before soaking in the onsen. Japanese people have always practiced cleaning themselves in a bathing area before dipping in hot springs. It is important to do one’s part in keeping a public or private bath clean, especially in communal areas.
  • Changing areas usually have shower rooms, though not all of them are equipped. It is better to use a separate shower room, just to be sure.
  • It is encouraged that guests bring their shampoos and soap, although other bathhouses may provide these at a cost. One is to sit down on a stool as it is considered improper to wash oneself while standing up as little drops of water could land on a bathing neighbor. Guests can also opt to have a quick wash in the shower so soap would not pollute the onsen.
  • Other onsen areas are shared, but some have scheduled hours when men and women get to use the facility.
  • Hot spring baths, either indoors and outdoors, do not allow alcohol while bathing. Bathhouses often display signs for guests to be aware of their policy. Drunk people are also prohibited from entering the onsen.

Onsen Manners & Etiquette

Bathing in an Onsen

  • First-timers may be susceptible to bathing naked in a public bath, but guests do not need to worry when taking a dip with only their skin. This has long been in the Japanese culture that it is usual for the locals to soak in the onsen without needing clothes. There are also options to enjoy an onsen alone. Guests can take advantage of renting an onsen for private use or can choose rooms that feature a personal hot bath just for the guest. Other modern onsens that have a water park do require swimwear in mixed baths.
  • Onsens are considered places of tranquility with the purpose to relax. Some onsens have music while other people who bathe would like to have a friendly conversation. Since other bathhouses permit children, there would be inevitable noises made by splashes and other playful acts, which is often tolerated.
  • People have the option to have their hand towel cover their front area before entering the onsen.
  • People can strike up conversations as long as they are considerate of other guests who are relaxing.
  • Only the body is allowed in the onsen. People can place their hand towels at the top of their heads. Be careful not to let the towel touch the water.
  • There is a saying that the waters of the hot spring baths should not be disturbed. Therefore, it is important to refrain from causing waters to splash or land far from the onsen. Guests are also prohibited to dive, swim, or jump in the onsen tub or pool.
  • Photography is prohibited in an onsen.

 

 

Post-Onsen Etiquette

  • It is recommended that guests do not wash immediately after showering as it also washes off the minerals.
  • Onsens and sentos often have locker rooms where the towels are placed after bathing. Help keep the room dry by wiping the body after soaking from the onsen. A yukata usually provided after a hot spring bath.
  • It is customary for many locals to have a drink of cold milk after an onsen bath. Fruit milk and coffee milk are recommendations of long-time bathers, which are must-try drinks!
  • Drinking alcohol is not advisable after a hot spring bath as it can dehydrate a freshly onsen-bathed person.
  • A famous delicacy is the onsen tamago, which is an egg slowly cooked in the heat of the onsen steam and water. It is a famous after-bath snack among the locals.
  • Recommended drinks are sports drinks, tea, or simply water to avoid dehydration after an onsen bath.

 

Additional Trivia

  • Children under the age of 7 are okay to enter opposite gender areas in shared baths so that they can be with their parents.
  • A certain percentage of foreigners do not bathe in hot spring baths because of the uncomfortable feeling of being naked in public. Another large factor that prohibits them from bathing are their tattoos.
  • The small towel is to be used as a washcloth, while the large towel is for drying and should not leave the changing area. It is important to note that towels should not touch the onsen waters.
  • Onsens steer clear of tattoo-wearers because of the history of the Yakuza and other crime groups and members that wear tattoos.
  • Swimwear in an onsen facility is believed to pollute the water as cloth material can affect the filtering system of hot springs badly.
  • Back in the early days, Japan had imposed a hierarchy that was distinguished by the clothing of a person. It was believed that the onsens were the only place capable of making people equal as no clothing was required.
  • Women during their menstrual period are prohibited from entering an onsen.
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