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Japanese Onsen Etiquette – Taking a Bath in Japan

April 15, 2018|Lena
Japanese Onsen Etiquette - Taking a Bath in Japan | Japanese Hot Springs | Onsen 101 | Rules for Japanese Onsen | Japan Travel Tips | Rotenburo | Sento | Japanese Bath House | #JapanTravel #CulturalTravel

An Onsen is a Japanese style hot spring that should be on every traveler’s bucket list. Visiting an Onsen not only has the health benefits for which they are so popular with the Japanese people, it is also a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. Japanese hot springs have a long tradition and are an important part of Japanese culture. By learning and following the Japanese Onsen Etiquette you can also learn a lot about Japanese values.

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I love visiting Onsen and have been to more than 20 different ones over the years (for example Ikaho Onsen or Zao Onsen). There are also a lot of Onsen I haven’t been to yet, for example Shuzenji, on of Japans oldest hot spring towns. But I can still remember the very first time I visited an Onsen. I am still very much ashamed about how clueless I was at the time about the correct Japanese Onsen Etiquette. To save you the embarrassment of standing around, hovering at the entrance and looking at other guests to see what they are doing so you can follow their guidance, I have put together a guide that will help you to enjoy an Onsen visit without making a fool of yourself.

Onsen (Hot Spring) vs. Sento (Bath House)

An Onsen (温泉) is a Japanese hot spring using natural hot mineral-rich water pumped from underground in places with volcanic activity. Per definition, Onsen water has to be at least 25 degrees Celsius when it is pumped up and must contain at least one of 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water.

A Sento (銭湯) is a simple bath house. Here the water is often normal groundwater heated up at the facility to a bath temperature of between 38 and 48 degrees Celsius.

The rules for visiting an Onsen and Sento are basically the same. So, no matter if what you visit is an Onsen or not, follow the below rules and you will be all right.

Rotenburo (Open-Air Bath)

A Rotenburo (露天風呂) is any kind of open-air bath. It might be in the form of a wooden bathtub for only one or two people or a modern pool on a terrace fed with Onsen water. But there are also more or less natural Rotenburo found in nature like the ones where Japanese monkeys bath in winter. One of the famous places to watch this (or even bath together with them) is Jigokudani Monkey Park in Yamanouchi.

Ashiyu (Foot Bath)

Relaxing at an ashiyu - foot onsen

If you aren’t prepared to get naked in front of strangers but still want to experience some form of Onsen, one way to do it would be the use of an Ashiyu (足湯), a foot bath. In many Onsen resort towns free to use footbaths are available for anyone to use. You only need to bring a small towel and you are good to go.

Ashiyu is especially nice after a long day of sightseeing and walking around to explore the area. It is a great place to take a break and make plans for the next day. I have been to Ashiyu in Kyoto, Shibu Onsen and Ikaho Onsen before and they were all very nice and relaxing.

How to Recognize an Onsen

Entrance curtain at an Onsen in Japan

Many times you will find Onsen or Sento on maps using either the following symbol ♨ or the Kanji 湯 meaning hot water. It might also use the Hiragana ゆ meaning the same thing.

At the entrance of many Onsen or Sento often hangs a half-length curtain inscribed with the letter ゆ.

Gender Separation

Female entrance to an Onsen in Japan

Before the opening of Japan during the Meiji Restauration at the end of the 19th century, Onsen and Sento were commonly mixed gender with women and men bathing together. But since then gender separation has been enforced in most bathing facilities. Usually the red entrance is for the ladies, and the blue one is for the men. So, even if you can’t read what is written on the curtain or door in general you will know what entrance you should use even as a foreigner.

There are exceptions to the gender separation rule, though. A few Onsen exist where males and females can take a bath together and enjoy the relaxation and health benefits together with their partner or the whole family. Most mixed gender Onsen offer some form of bathing clothes to women to cover themselves. This courtesy is only for women and men are expected cover themselves with a small towel when stepping outside the pool.

I really like visiting Onsen with mixed facilities because I usually travel with my boyfriend and taking a bath alone is so lonely and gets boring quite fast. One Onsen I can especially recommend for mixed gender bathing is Takaragawa Onsen. They have one of the biggest Rotenburo (outdoor pools, see above) in Japan. These Onsen pools are on both sides of a river high up in the mountains surrounded by nature.

Follow the Rules - Onsen Etiquette

Now that you know what the difference between and Onsen and a Sento is. And what to expect when you hear Rotenburo or Ashiyu it is time to go into detail about the does and don’ts, or better the Onsen etiquette you should follow. In many Onsen, especially where there are foreign visitors there are pictures with the most important rules written in the changing area or the bathing area. Pay attention to those before you go in. But to get you started read the following rules carefully.

No Tattoos

Most Onsen don’t allow entry to people with tattoos, this has an origin in older times when only Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) were tattooed in Japan. Yakuza were denied entry to Onsen, which is still the case today. Of course, nowadays not only Yakuza have tattoos and even in Japan, it has become more common for the general population to have tattoos. But the rules in Japan change only slowly and most Onsen don’t welcome guests with visible tattoos.

If you have a small tattoo and want to visit and Onsen anyways I have two suggestions: Either cover the tattoo with a bandage if it is small or search specifically for an Onsen that allows visitors with tattoos. Please don’t ignore the rules and visit an Onsen where tattoos are forbidden if it is not possible to cover it up when you are naked. Other guests might take offense and report you to staff.

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No Swimwear Allowed

You might already know this part but I think it won’t hurt to mention it again: You are not allowed to go into an Onsen pool with any clothes. This includes swimwear like bikini or shorts. The only exception to this rule is in case of a mixed bath where special clothes are provided for the ladies (see above). Usually, after you get undressed in the change room you won’t take anything but a small towel with you into the Onsen.

Cleanliness

Wash your Body

An Onsen is not a swimming pool. The water is not full of chemicals to keep it clean so it is the responsibility of everyone using it to keep it as clean as possible. One way to accomplish this is by cleaning your body thoroughly before you enter an Onsen pool. There are usually shower areas where you can wash. They usually include a mirror, stool, buckets, body soap, and shampoo. If no area to take a shower is provided, this might be the case in very small Onsen, there is usually a bowl where you can take the water out of the pool and rinse your body off before entering.

Rinse off your Feet

Rotenburo at Ikaho Onsen

Especially if there is an outdoor area make sure to rinse off your feet before you step into a pool. Usually, they will provide some kind of bowl to get some water out of the Onsen so you can rinse your feet before stepping in. If there isn’t you can alternatively use your hands to scoop some water.

Don’t Put your Towel into the Water

Onsen guest with towel on her head

Most people bring a small towel with them into the bathing area. The use it to clean their body before entering a pool in the washing area, and to cover their bodies while walking around. Please be careful not to put the towel into the water of the Onsen pools as this is considered unclean. Most people will either place it on the side of the pool or on their heads.

Keep your Head and Hair out of the Water

For your own health keep your head out of the water. Even though the bath water is kept as clean as possible it is still possible to contract infections, and more easily if your face gets in contact with the water.

If you are a girl with long hair make sure to put them up so they won’t float around in the water. You wouldn’t want to bath in other people’s hair either so be considered and don’t forget to bring a hairband.

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Two More Things to Know

No Alcohol but Plenty of Water

For obvious reasons (heat and alcohol don’t mix) there are usually signs that tell you not to drink alcohol in an Onsen, or before going into one. Of course, it is up to you if you want to follow this rule.

In general, it is advisable to drink a lot of water after you are done with your bath and I recommend you do that before you open a nice cool beer. The Japanese also love to drink milk after a bath and often there are vending machines selling milk, coffee or cocoa in the break area or around the exit.

No Pictures

Everyone is running around in their birthday suit so obviously taking pictures is a no go. You probably wouldn’t want to be naked in other people’s pictures, so please respect everyone’s privacy and refrain from taking any pictures.

Finally

If you follow all these tips I am sure you will have a lovely time without offending anyone because you will have followed the Japanese Onsen Etiquette. Have you ever visited an Onsen before? If yes, did you know about all these rules? For everyone who hasn’t tried it yet, I strongly recommend you visit an Onsen during your next (or first) visit to Japan. How about Zao Onsen? Or alternative one of these 3 Onsen in Tokyo.

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Japanese Onsen Etiquette - Taking a Bath in Japan | Japanese Hot Springs | Onsen 101 | Rules for Japanese Onsen | Japan Travel Tips | Rotenburo | Sento | Japanese Bath House | #JapanTravel #CulturalTravel
Japanese Onsen Etiquette - Taking a Bath in Japan | Japanese Hot Springs | Onsen 101 | Rules for Japanese Onsen | Japan Travel Tips | Rotenburo | Sento | Japanese Bath House | #JapanTravel #CulturalTravel

Lena

Authors Note:
None of the experiences in this post are in any way sponsored and have all been payed for by myself. The opinions stated are all my own and have not been influenced in any way.
This posts contains affiliate links. I receive a commission if a product is purchased through one of these links, at no extra cost to you. Please support me by purchasing products through my links!

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About Lena

Hi, I'm Lena the founder of The Social Travel Experiment. My mission is to help bussy millennials plan an unforgettable trip around the world, through stays with locals, without wasting valuable time and money.

Find out more About Me and The Social Travel Experiment

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About Lena

Hi, I'm Lena the founder of The Social Travel Experiment. My mission is to help bussy millennials plan an unforgettable trip around the world, through stays with locals, without wasting valuable time and money.

Find out more About Me and The Social Travel Experiment

If you are a business we might be able to work together so check out the Work With Me page for more details

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