A Beginners Guide to Onsen (Hot Springs) in Japan

If you ever get the chance to visit Japan, one of the must-do experiences is to visit an onsen. An onsen is a natural bath that uses spring water to provide a warm, potentially healthy bathing experience. Visitors enter the baths in the nude, with the onsen usually separated into male and female areas. Then everyone lays back, relaxes, and lets the warm water work its magic. 

There are quite a few potential health benefits of onsen water. Full of healthy minerals that are great for the skin and the numerous mental health benefits from a relaxing, soothing soak. One of Japan’s most popular and enduring attractions, visiting an onsen is a unique experience that won’t be soon forgotten.  

Japan is said to have more than 25,000 natural hot springs. Around 3,000 establishments claim to be natural onsen siphoning water from these sources. 

Onsen come in two major types: 

  1. Outdoor (open-air) baths: called either 露天風呂 (roten-buro) or 野天風呂 (noten-buro
  2. Indoor Baths: 内湯(uchiyu)

Traditionally onsen were always located outside, but indoor ones are very common these days. Some onsen are also attached to hotels or inns, known as ryokan where access to the onsen is part of several hotel amenities, while others are independent. There are even cold-water natural onsens, though these are rarer than their warm counterparts.

What to Expect When Going to An Onsen in Japan

So what should you expect when you visit an onsen? The first thing to remember is not to be nervous or worried. While it might seem like there are many rules and traditions to follow in the bath, it’s actually quite simple once you get the hang of it.  

Entering the Onsen

For standalone onsens (not hotels or ryokan), you’ll usually pay at the front desk for whatever service you’re looking for, most likely the baths, but some onsen offer additional health and wellness experiences such as massages or saunas. Onsen can also vary significantly in terms of pricing and features, with some being more straightforward and others being luxurious, but all offer the same basic bathing service.

The baths are separated into male and female sections, so once you’ve paid, you’ll head toward the changing rooms for your gender. You’ll take off your clothes, as expected for a bath (no swimming suits allowed).

Some onsen might have multiple baths with different water types, minerals, and temperatures. The look, feel, and décor can vary greatly, too: from organic to traditional or modern. It all depends on the specific establishment – how authentic they want to be and what kind of water they can access.  

Onsen Rules

Here’s the crucial step, and the one you most want to remember: everyone washes before they enter the onsen. The focus of the onsen is to be therapeutic and relaxing, so everyone entering it must clean their bodies first. While soaking in the water, you can admire the natural view of your ryokan and feel your worries melt. This would not be such a pleasant experience if the person next to you is washing their armpits.  

There’ll almost always be showers with shampoo and body wash provided. Sometimes you’ll find stand-up showers or the more retro type where you sit on a small stool. Either way, give yourself a good scrub, walk to the baths, and enter at your leisure.

Dealing with Being Naked

One thing that tourists sometimes struggle with is the nakedness aspect of the onsen. Yes, everyone gets naked. But there’s really no reason to be embarrassed or nervous about it. Depending on your perspective, the carefree attitude to nudity you’ll find in an onsen can be refreshing.  

Onsen usually provides a small towel to customers (or have some available to rent or purchase), so if you’re nervous, you might want to use it to preserve a bit of modesty: but this is primarily meant as a washcloth and for wiping the sweat from your brow as you soak. Most importantly, the towel should never enter the bath, so whatever you do with it, keep it outside. Just try to walk around as you usually would, obviously don’t stare at other bathers, and eventually, you’ll get used to the environment and feel comfortable.

Onsen and Tattoos

Something important to note: for historical reasons, mostly related to the yakuza, some onsen can have policies against people with tattoos entering the baths. Though with the influx of tourists in the past few decades, these rules can now vary, such as allowing guests in if they cover their tattoos. So make sure to check the onsen’s policies before you visit.

Finishing Your Bath

Once you’re in the bath, what you do is up to you – you may be paying by the hour or have as much time as you like. When you’ve had your fill of bathing, you’ll simply get out of the bath and return to the changing room. One last little treat, which is pretty popular after an extensive onsen session, is the drink vending machines you’ll usually find in the changing rooms. Having an ice-cold milk or soft drink after soaking in a hot steamy bath for an hour or two really hits the spot.

Give bathing in an onsen a go if you get the opportunity. Don’t be nervous if you’re confused; just look around and see what everyone else is doing, and above all, relax and enjoy the experience! 

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Sam Barker

Sam L Barker is a marketing professional with years of experience working in software and technology. He is also a freelance writer and editor focusing on the areas of Japanese culture, music, technology, the internet, and business. He used to teach English in Tokyo and loves night walks through the city.

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