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A Brief Guide to Japanese Onsen Posted by on May 8, 2017 in Culture, Travel

No visit to Japan would be complete without a soak in an onsen (温泉). These are natural hot springs and are very popular places to escape from hectic city life to kick back and relax. Let’s learn a little bit about the onsen as well as the proper etiquette for visiting them.

An Introduction to Onsen

An Introduction to Onsen

Relax in the onsen.

As a volcanically active country, it should come as no surprise that you can find onsen just about anywhere in Japan. Traditionally, these were public bathing facilities. These days they serve as more of a respite from the daily grind of big city life and they are a big part of the Japanese tourism industry. People flee the frantic pace of mega-cities like Tokyo and head for the countryside to enjoy a few days of fresh air and, most importantly, hot baths. Should you find yourself trapped in the city, however, never fear, as some onsen can still be found amidst the skyscrapers and neon lights. Big or small, indoor or outdoor, in the mountains or in the concrete jungle, a wide variety of onsen are available for you to enjoy.

Fun for the whole family!

These hot baths are a vital part of Japanese culture, and they offer more than just relaxation – onsen are believed to have healing powers derived from their mineral content. Onsen are commonly gender-separated, and are enjoyed in the buff. While it may seem odd to Western visitors, Japanese extoll the virtues of what they call “naked communion” (裸の付き合い Hadaka no tsukiai) that can be experienced in the onsen. Soaking next to strangers completely naked certainly breaks down some barriers. Plus, it’s easy to relax when you’re enjoying the soothing hot waters. If this isn’t your thing, never fear – some places feature more of a water park atmosphere, and these are meant for all people to enjoy together in the comfort of their bathing suits.

Onsen Etiquette

A must-do when traveling in Japan.

Before you head out to take a dip in one of these healing baths, there are a few things you should know about onsen etiquette:

  • Get covered – This one goes for those with ink. Tattoos are associated with gangs and unruly behavior in Japan, so you’d better take some bandages and cover them up before heading into the locker room. Many onsen strictly forbid tattooed guests to enter.
  • Get naked – As I previously mentioned, most onsen are enjoyed in the nude. Head into the locker room, strip down, and store your belongings in a small basket before entering the bathing area.
  • Get clean – A full on shower is not necessary, but you should at least rinse yourself from head to toe in one of the small shower cubicles that are provided. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a proper shower, and most onsen will provide all of the essentials.
  • Get comfy – Take your time getting into the onsen, as they can be incredibly hot. Once submerged, sit back, relax, and let the magical waters do their work.
  • Get out –  As the water is very hot, it’s important that you don’t stay in for too long. Take a break, rinse, and repeat. It should be noted that for the hot spring waters to take their full effect, you should not shower after you’re finished.

Staying in a Ryokan

Enjoying a stay in a traditional ryokan.

While there are plenty of public onsen open for business, the best way to enjoy the traditional experience is to spend a few days in a ryokan (旅館) – a traditional Japanese inn. Here, you can start and end your days with a dip in one of many hot baths. Not only that, but you’re also treated to a massive traditional Japanese feast for both breakfast and dinner. Consider adding a stay in a countryside ryokan with an onsen to the end of your Japan trip. It’s a great way to wind down after exploring the country’s bustling mega-cities.

However you decide to enjoy the many onsen of Japan, you’re sure to leave feeling relaxed, refreshed, and reenergized.

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About the Author:sasha

Sasha is a teacher, student, writer, photographer, web designer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently planning a trip through Central/South America.


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