How to Enjoy a Japanese Onsen Hot Spring

By Freedom Chevalier

Nothing compares to slipping into the hot, bubbling waters of a Japanese Onsen. The day’s worries and stresses dissolve as the hot springs churn and swirl around you. You want to try it out, but etiquette for these naturally occurring hot pools can seem daunting, if not utterly perplexing, to most non-Japanese. However, don’t let that stop you from enjoying one of the must-do events on any trip to the archipelago. Just follow these tips on onsen etiquette and you'll be soaking your worries away in no time!

Onsen How-To
 
When you first arrive, before you check in, pop your footwear into the cubby provided. Take the key and bring it with you to the front desk. It’s here that you’ll hand over your shoe cubby key in exchange receive an electromagnetic bracelet (with a different key attached), and a couple of towels. The bracelet will have your locker information coded onto it. The bracelet is waterproof, so you don't need to worry about getting it wet.

Changing Rooms
 
It's now time to head to the change rooms. Look for the curtain with the Kanji for male/ female and head in. If you can’t read Kanji, don’t worry, they always use red curtains for girls and blue for boys. Now that you’ve found your locker, it’s time to get naked.
 
Towels
 
You’ll most likely get two towels: a full-size towel for drying off and a small towel, called a ‘modesty towel’ which is about to become your best friend during your visit to the onsen hot springs. Once you’ve put all your clothing in the locker, walk to the hot pool area holding your modesty towel in front of you, covering your boy or girl parts. Ladies, hold the towel lengthwise at the top of your cleavage; men fold the towel in half, lengthwise, and hold it at the top of your hip bones.
 
Washing Up
 
Once you go into the hot springs area, it’s time to get clean. You’ll see a string of washing stations, most often along one wall. Onsen etiquette requires you to wash everything, body, and hair, before getting into the hot pool. Choose one and get comfy.

Washing Station
 
A washing station typically consists of a mini shower set up, a small plastic (or wooden) stool and a smaller bowl. Fill up your bowl with water and sit on the stool, facing the station. Most Japanese bathhouses provide body soaps and shampoos for guest use. Always sit down when washing, standing is considered rude (and you might splash your neigbour). Using your modesty towel, or our hands, wash your entire body with soap. Don’t miss any nooks or crannies! All clean? Great! Time to rinse and ring out your modesty towel, and clean your washing station before getting into the steaming waters behind you. Stand and rinse off your plastic stool and bowl with the shower hose and position them for the next person.

A couple of particular notes concerning hair.
 
Even if you’ve washed your hair earlier in the day, you’ll need to wash your hair again before getting into the water. NEVER get into a hot pool with dry hair.
 
Hair must also NEVER touch the water, so ponytail, clip or pin your hair up. Seeing someone else's strands go floating by will ruin a good soak for everyone.

Now you’re ready for onsen!

Bring your modesty towel with you to the hot pool, but don’t let it touch the water. Many bathers fold or bunch their towel and wear it on your head, or you can put it off to the side of the onsen hot springs.

Temperature

The temperature of the water may take a little getting used to. It’s hotter than most non-Japanese are accustomed to enjoying at home. You can take as long as you want in an onsen, so go slowly the first time you get into the hot spring.
 
When your towel gets wet, because it will, be sure to wring it out outside of the hot pool. It’s a no-no to get the onsen water dirty with water from your modesty towel.
 
Once you’ve finished your soak, head back to the dressing room, dry off and get dressed. And don’t miss out on trying some of the wonderful assortment of body lotions and styling gels provided for guests.

Checking Out

Bring your bracelet back to the check-in desk, pay your bill, and get the key for your shoe cubby.

Congratulations! You've just done onsen!
 
Footnote:  Tattoos and Onsen
 
Tattoos are typically frowned up at an onsen, because of the cultural link between tattoos and criminal activity. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a luxurious soak if you have a tattoo. Many establishments will allow you to participate if your tattoo can be covered with a plaster (non-medicated) or other flesh coloured bandage. Additionally, many bathhouses outside of Tokyo permit tattoos, especially if you are non-Japanese. Check with the establishment before making the trip to avoid unnecessary embarrassment to yourself or the onsen staff.