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Etiquette and Taboo For Onsen Visitors

by Elizabeth Shirshikova June 06, 2016

Japanese onsen manners

As the Japanese do…

Onsen have been around for many centuries so it’s easy to assume the Japanese got the tradition down. Here's the step-by-step guide on how to make you fit right in and have a full onsen hot spring experience.

onsen history

Historical ukiyo-e art showing women going to an onsen

In general there are two types of onsens: day onsens and overnight stay onsens. The day onsens are for day-trippers who want to relax for a few hours. Overnight onsens are for guests who will be staying the night.

Many times, both types of onsens are at the same facility, but the overnight guests usually get priority access to private onsens.

Now onto the guidelines!

Step 1:  Getting In

Bathers are to submit their clothing into lockers upon entering gendered changing rooms. The actual entrance to the onsens and changing rooms are marked with the Japanese character "ゆ" which means "hot water". It's usually marked, but "男" is for men and "女" is for women.

Tips for parents :  Young children (under 3) are able to accompany either parent in either onsens.

onsen gender entrance

The houses are garnished in beautiful decor and rooms to lounge in. The lobby usually has a nice gift shop, a cafe, and beautiful gardens that you can stroll around in.

ryokan garden

Beautiful courtyard garden at an onsen

Some onsens have other smaller types of bath like foot baths. Definitely check these out! Many even allow you to order drinks and tea while you enjoy the foot bath.

foot bath onsen

Foot and hand bath at a luxury onsen ryokan

On and remember, you're supposed to go into the onsen naked. Yup totally naked! After skimming into your birthday suit most onsen will provide a small privacy towel which will be used for a number of things. 

Step 2: Clean Yourself Before Going In

Washing before entering the onsen is incredibly important. As the baths are shared and most effective if they are free of foreign germs and dirt.

shower before onsen

You'll find lines of mini sit-down shower stalls before you go into the hot spring. You must wash yourself and rinse thoroughly before entering the bath. Don't stand up and take a shower. Sit down on the chair and shower thoroughly in the washing space. Oh and be mindful not to splash other people in the area as much as possible.

Tip:Make sure to put everything back the way you found it (the chair, bucket, shower head).

Oh and did we mention...EMBRACE THE NAKEDNESS!

Step 3: Warm Up Your Body

onsen bucket

A step that is easily forgotten, run over to the nice stacked buckets and run hot water (from the shower) over your squeaky clean body. So dunking into the hot springs does not surprise the body. Getting your head wet with hot water before entering the bath is especially important during the cold winter.

Step 4: Soak Half of Your Body (Hanshin-Yoku)

Slip into the bath carefully up to your waist and get used to the water temperature. Hanshin-yoku is recommended if you have problems with your heart or lungs.

onsen manners

Step 5: Soak Your Full Body (Zenshin-Yoku)

Soak up to your shoulders to do the Zenshin-Yoku after the Hanshin-Yoku. You can put your head on the edge of the bath and let the rest of the body float in the hot spring. Remember to move your hands and feet which, along with the hot water will increase your blood circulation.

Pro Tip: Privacy towel to the rescue!  Roll up the towel and place it under your neck to use as a pillow.

Japanese hotspring onsen etiquette

Step 6: Relax and Enjoy the Atmosphere

It is important to respect the onsen's atmosphere of tranquility, by keeping voices low. 
But don't be afraid to be open to social interaction with other bathers. It's an opportunity to peacefully sink into the Japanese lifestyle and learn a thing or two. Historically, onsen served as a retreat to enjoy and socialize, aka gossip with the girls.

Step 7: Time to Leave

Though we've been pretty expressive on the need to wash up, this is the exception. Onsens are rich in minerals, so it's important to leave the minerals of the onsen water on your body. Of course, if you have sensitive skin, you rinse it off.

ryokan lounge

Once you've left the bath and changed, make sure to relax in lounge. There are usually small shops, cafes, and massage chairs in the area. 

Pro Tip: Leave your phone on airplane mode or better yet, don't bring it! Enjoying the tranquility and experience from start-to-end is really refreshing. When's the last time you went off the grid for even a few minutes? Take this opportunity to just relax and take your mind off of things (without your phone).

Some onsen etiquette have been tradition for so long that they often stay behind on the modern world. The Japanese Tourism association sent a poll to onsen owners to see their policies on tattoos. 

Tattoo's are still associated with Japanese gang culture, and patrons will be turned away. Though some onsen in heavy tourist area's are fine with foreigners other's will recommend you to a private room. 

Irezumi is the traditional Japanese form of tattooing. In the past it was specific for law breakers to be covered in it. C riminals got Irezumi as a sentence during the Edo period.

japanese tattoo

If you have a tattoo, don't worry! There are many products to turn to; everything from waterproof concealers to spunky products like this skin tape.

Now you’ve heard all what we had to say and the last tip we can give is actually go to an onsen and finally rest and relax.

Looking for other Japan Travel Tips? Check These Out!

Elizabeth Shirshikova
Elizabeth Shirshikova

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