How to onsen in Japan: bathing etiquette and what to expect

Headed to Japan and curious about their famous hot spring baths or Onsen? The Japanese onsen experience is one you have to try for yourself – minerals in Japan’s waters are believed to help beautify your skin and provide other health benefits, and honestly who doesn’t love a nice hot bath? Since Singapore’s claim to hot spring fame is a single tap from which people fill up their pails and stick their feet in so, here’s what you need about how to soak in a Japanese onsen to prep you for that awesome hot spring experience, and make sure you don’t inadvertently embarrass anyone around you (yourself included),.

I first wrote a version of this article for Go! Girl Guides where I was a contributing blogger

A typical Onsen bath layout

For any onsen that you visit, there are typically three main sections that they are broken down into:

1. The robing area

The first room you encounter when you enter the bath works like a gym locker room. This is where you divest yourself of all your clothes and accessories, and change back into them before you leave. There are usually baskets and/or lockers to keep your stuff in. Also, there is usually a powder room area with hairdryers, lotions and other accessories where you can freshen up before you leave.

Japan Awara Onsen Robing Room
The place where you change and freshen up before and after the bath. Note the baskets on the left where you can leave your clothes and towels

2. The showers

These are usually found next to the onsen pools as you need to rinse off any dirt/sweat before going into the pools, both for hygiene reasons as well as to prep your body for the hot water. The water here is fresh water (i.e. without the minerals in it), so I usually rinse off again when I am done, but some people say not to do that so that you can preserve the nutrients from the hot springs on your skin.

Japan Onsen Showers
The shower stalls at an onsen are low and squat. Photo by Japanexperterna via Flickr CC

3. The Onsen pool(s)

Finally after all that it’s time for you to have a soak. For most onsens, the waters have temperatures ranging anywhere from 38 to 40ºC. Larger onsens usually have more than one pool with different temperatures or mineral content. Overall onsen pools are usually fairly shallow, and often have slabs for sitting on or leaning so you can lounge and soak in peace.

Japan Onsen Pool
Most of the onsens I’ve been to have been indoors. Some have landscaping to look like natural pools, others are more swimming pool like. Photo by Isriya Paireepairit via Flickr CC

Get naked

Drop those drawers and your modesty because the Japanese style of bathing is to go stark naked, none of that modesty you see on TV where the hosts usually have a towel wrapped around them – the idea is that clothes introduce dirt into the pools, that’s why they are not allowed in the water. Most baths are segregated by gender so there’s really no need to be embarrassed.

The nudity in the Japanese Onsens was definitely a bit surprising for me because I first encountered hot springs in Taiwan, where you are required to be in a bathing suit in the public baths whether indoor or outdoor. Still, I got over my initial awkwardness quite quickly – you spend most of your time in the water anyway, and most of the people there aren’t supermodels so there’s no need to be body-shy.

Remember to take out your accessories as well, especially the metal ones, as you never know how they might react with the nutrients in the hot spring water.

Taiwan Suao Cold Spring Bubbles
Just you and your skin in the water

I was a little awkward about it the first few times, but soon realised that no one really takes any notice of anyone else, you are all in the same (naked) boat after all and everyone pretty much goes about their own business. So follow that cue and as curious as you might be, try not to stare too openly at other people.

If privacy is an issue though, there is the option of finding private bath cubicles or hot spring hotels with private facilities where you can soak in peace. Japan has some pretty awesome Onsen hotels and if you’re willing to pay, you can have a pool all to yourself, right in your room.

Take it easy

Enter the water in a relaxed way – don’t go in too quickly or the sudden change in temperatures might make you faint. Start off by sitting at the edge and sticking your feet in first to get used to the temperatures. Once your body has settled, slowly start lowering yourself into the pool until you are comfortable. Some people splash the water on their body first before lowering themselves into the water. If you start to feel woozy or light headed, get out of the pool and let your body cool down before you try again.

Setoda Tarumi Hostel - Bath Feet
Relaxxxxxx

Some tips I’ve had from seasoned bathers: One way to counter the lightheadedness is to place a little towel soaked in hot water on the top of your head to ‘balance’ the temperature from head to toe. While you can’t bring in big towels, you can usually bring a small towel with you to the pools, but refrain from using it like a washcloth. Another suggested keeping the chest out of the water (i.e. your lungs) so you don’t have difficulty breathing.

Onsens are such a godsend for aching bodies and especially in freezing cold winter weather – your body straight out of the bath feels toasty warm and you are invincible against the cold for a few minutes because your body is still so warm. If you are thinking about skiing in Japan, an Onsen is HEAVEN to come back to after a long day out on the slopes.

Headed to Japan soon? Check out all my Japan articles, or if you’re headed to neighbouring Taiwan instead, check out some of my favourite hot springs in Taiwan, like this outdoor hot spring facing the sunrise on Green Island, and a rare cold spring in Su Ao.

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