Tips for Visiting an Onsen in Japan

It seems that for many people, planning a trip to Japan follows a predictable pattern. Step 1: book a cheap flight to Tokyo. Step 2: begin dreaming of drinking copious amounts of sake, indulging in way too much sushi, visiting ornate temples and soaking in a traditional onsen and then…step 3: discover that, not only do you soak in an onsen, or Japanese hot spring stark naked, but there’s also a very specific etiquette that goes along with a visit, and promptly begin freaking out. Suddenly your hot springs experience, which is meant to be soothing can become a source of anxiety. Will people be looking? What if you make a faux pas? But an onsen visit doesn’t have to be stressful. Here are four things to know before you go to ensure a pleasant experience.

1) Yes, you really do have to get naked in front of strangers

But no, they aren’t looking and they don’t care what you look like. Locals are there to relax, not gawk. And other foreigners probably feel the same way you do and are doing their best to avert their eyes. Most onsens are separated into male and female sides (or welcome different genders at different times) so really it’s more like being in the locker room at the gym. And once you are in the water, you’re mostly covered. When you are arrive, you are given a “modesty towel” but it’s nearly microscopic, so don’t expect it to cover much.

2) Cleanliness is very important at an onsen

When you arrive, remove and store your clothes and then head to the washing station. At some places there will be a stool for you to use; rinse it off before and after use. At other places, you’ll just need to bend down to scoop water from the bath. Wash thoroughly and then enter the onson. Once in, never put your towel in the water. You can place it on the side or set it on your head, like most people do. When you’re done bathing, do not rinse off as this supposedly removes the beneficial minerals from your skin.

3) Ease yourself into the water

Many people are surprised by how hot the water in an onsen can be. Enter very slowly and take care not so splash around or disturb the other guests. If you find the water too hot, placing your cool towel on your forehead can help, as can staying relatively still. Once you acclimate to the water though, the experience becomes much more pleasant. When getting out, stand up slowly or you might get dizzy. And never drink alcohol before going in an onsen. The combination of booze and the high heat of the water can make you very ill.

4) Cover up any tattoos

Though they are becoming more popular with younger people, tattoos in Japan have traditionally been associated with people who have yakusa or gangsters ties. Most onsen specifically prohibit anyone with a tattoo from entering, though you can often get in unnoticed. When you arrive, make sure any larger tattoos are covered by your clothing, then try to be discreet once you take your clothes off. If you can, keep the tattoo covered by your towel until you are in the water. And if you are refused entry or asked to leave because of your tattoo, be respectful and leave without argument.

by Katie of BootsnAll

Traveling to Japan soon? Check out mTrip’s Tokyo Travel Guide

Photo by: vera46