10 Dos and Don’ts when visiting a Japanese Hot Spring
When I moved to Japan, one of the things I was looking most forward to was visiting a Japanese Hot Spring or Public Bath, commonly known as an onsen. An onsen, by definition is a natural hot spring. Thanks to Japan being a volcanically active country, there are thousands of them to choose from. I happen to live in an area where I have access to many different onsens. My first experience was quite comical as I had no idea what I was doing. So in order that you might not have the same issues, the following is my bit of advice when visiting an onsen and what to expect.
Take a big towel and a small hand towel –
There are many levels of onsens. The price for a common neighborhood onsen runs around 400 yen or $3.50 US, while a classier onsen could cost you up to 900 yen or $8.50 US. The pricier the onsen, the more likely they will have amenities like soap, shampoo, and hair dryers for you to use. That being said, the one thing they almost never provide for free is towels. You will have to rent them for around 200 yen. I highly recommend that you take your own. Take one large towel to dry off with, which you will leave in the locker room while you bathe, and one small towel that you will take with you into the hot spring area. The small towel is optional, as you can not get it wet in the hot spring. It is more for either keeping your hair up (so it doesn’t get in the water) or as a way to cover your naughty bits while changing from tub to tub. If you aren’t generally a shy person, the small towel might not be needed. The large towel is what you will dry off with once you are done soaking in the hot springs.
Bathe before entering the hot spring –
This is the part that I think freaks most westerners out. You have to bathe before entering the hot springs. The bathing area is a number of vanities with showers and small stools for you to use to wash yourself thoroughly before entering the springs. You will be taking a shower with other people in the room, there are no curtains. This can be quite nerve wrecking for some, but rest assured it is just part of Japanese culture. You will even see old ladies help each other out by washing each others backs with hard brushes. Trust me, it looks painful but they love it. I personally enjoy shower time at the onsen, because it is the one place where I am able to shave my legs efficiently and not miss my knees!!!! Just be sure to be aware of your surroundings and not hit any innocent bystanders with your shower hose. I have been victim of a couple of old ladies who have let their showers go awry. Once you are all clean, you are ready to hit the springs!
Drink water before and after –
The one thing many first time onsen goers forget to do is to hydrate! Before entering the hot springs, be sure to drink plenty of water. Water and tea are welcome inside the hot springs, as long as they are in a plastic bottles, however it can be a little of a hassle to remember to tote your bottle from tub to tub. So, be sure to drink up before and after. Because you spend the time in the water, you don’t realize how dehydrated you can get. The springs are often kept around 42 degrees Celsius or 107 degrees Fahrenheit. This means you sweat A LOT, and since you are already wet, you don’t notice the sweat. Drinking water can help prevent any overheating that might occur.
Buy milk after –
Not everybody does it, but I feel like they all should. The majority of onsens have a vending machine that will sell you the best tasting milk on the planet. I am somewhat lactose intolerant, but give in any time I visit the onsen. For about 110 yen, I drink 8 ounces of fresh cold whole milk out of a glass jug. After hours soaking in the hot tub, it is the perfect refreshment (contrary to what you might think).
Cover up tattoos –
This rule is a little old fashioned if you ask me, but in a country where tattoos and criminals have always been synonymous the stigma still stands. You can find onsens where tattoos are not a problem, and for the most part being foreign, they won’t think you are part of the Yakuza. However, it is still wise to cover any small tattoos if you can. I cover mine with two small band-aids and have no trouble entering any onsens. If you are worried about knowing whether tattoos are allowed or not, most onsens have big signs right when you enter if they don’t allow tattoos. For those of you with extensive ink, your safest bet will be visiting onsens attached to a hotel you are staying at, or places with a large number of foreign tourists.
Be shy –
This one if mainly for my American friends, it isn’t part of the culture to be naked in a semi-public space without feeling awkward. I would say, just put your reservations to the side for once and enjoy in a truly unique cultural experience. My friend recently visited me from California, and I asked her if she would like to go. She was all in, and didn’t regret it one bit. After moving to Japan, any trepidation I had about being naked in front of strangers has been removed. Many times while at the onsen, women bathing will come up and ask me questions about where I am from and such. So don’t feel awkward if you get approached while bathing. It is a normal activity to go with your friends to the onsen, and has taught me a lot about global beauty standards and body acceptance. So, don’t think twice before taking a life long friend or someone you just met to the local hot spring!
Take up too much space –
This is a good rule for all of Japan. In a country where space is really a commodity, you need to learn to be as compact as possible. It isn’t polite to take up more room than necessary in the hot springs tubs. And even though sometimes old women or men will come into your tub and start to do what I can only describe as a variety of calisthenics, you should not do the same.
Think all onsens are the same –
So you’ve been to one onsen, so you’ve seen them all!!! No, not true. There are all kinds of onsens. I frequent my neighborhood onsen which has four tubs, three indoors and one outdoors. They all vary in temperature. Each onsen is unique in the minerals that it contains, so certain ones can help with certain ailments. I recently took a trip to an onsen resort town where each of the nine onsens helped with a different health problem. Legally to be considered an onsen the water has to have at least 19 types of minerals like iron, radium, sulfur, or metabolic acid. Some areas of Japan have more of one mineral than others. For example, in Nagano prefecture, the majority of onsens are sulfur rich. The smell can take some getting used to, but they are my favorite. I spent a weekend in The Guesthouse Raicho where I was able to rent the sulfur onsen for myself. It was heaven, and I highly recommend it if you are in the Matsumoto/Norikura Kogen area.
On another note, sometimes in the Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe) region, they use the word onsen to refer to any hot water public bath. The tubs are not all natural. I learned this lesson the hard way when I visited Osaka. I went to Spa World excited to try the variety of tubs, only to realize they were not natural and some smelled slightly of chlorine. So double check before you soak!
Drink too much alcohol before –
Drinking alcohol in the onsen is prohibited. As I stated earlier, onsens can really make you dehydrated, and even though we all love a good Jacuzzi and wine mix, be careful with your alcohol consumption before entering the hot springs. If you drink before going, make sure you don’t have to drive or go too far. The relaxing mix can make moving anywhere nearly impossible. My friend and I had gone to a wine tasting before a couple hours of soaking and were almost too tired to get home. So I recommend waiting until you are safely home before imbibing in any cocktails.
Make noise –
Onsens are usually a place of quiet reflection and relaxation. People go to unplug from the day, and prefer to unplug in silence. It isn’t hard to get sucked into the tranquility of the hot springs. That being said, not all onsens are so tranquil. My neighborhood onsen is the local hang out for the neighborhood old ladies, and their favorite gossip spot. They talk the entire time, catching up on the week’s events. I can hear the men doing the same from the other side of the wall. It isn’t forbidden to talk, and sometimes I good soak and chat is what we all need. But be respectful of others who are trying to wind down. Almost everyone likes a little quiet time now and then. If you want less noise, be sure to visit onsens in more remote locations. These places are less likely to have families with small children or old lady gossip groups.
Onsens are open year round, so there is always a chance to go. High season for onsen going is fall and winter, because of the cooler temperatures outside. But, the views tend to be better from late spring into fall. Now that you know the dos and don’ts of visiting an onsen, time to grab a towel, get naked, and go, the next time you are in Japan!