Japanese Onsen Etiquette 101
Japan is known for a lot of unique things – delicious cuisine, capsule hotels, historic temples and shrines, tea ceremonies, and breathtaking scenery just to name a few. But another thing that Japan is incredibly well-known for is their relaxing hot springs, also known as onsen.
In this guide, we will cover Japanese onsen etiquette to avoid any faux pas when using a traditional Japanese hot spring and also provide a list of our favorite onsen ryokans (traditional Japanese inns/hotels with onsen). You just have to promise to relax a little extra for me ok? 😉
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What is an Onsen?
If you haven’t figured it out yet, let me tell you all about onsen! An onsen is a Japanese natural hot spring that is popular for relaxing and has been linked to a number of health benefits. There are over 3,000 geothermal hot springs that can be found indoors and outdoors all over Japan! They are often in luxury Japanese ryokan or minshuku (bed and breakfasts) with both public and private options.
In order to be a legitimate onsen, the water must come from a geothermal hot spring. But there are manmade hot springs that are called sento in a number of hotels and ryokan too. Typically the temperature of onsen is around 77°F (25°C) but some have even been up to 212°F (100°C)!
Health Benefits of Onsen
Many studies have shown that Japanese onsen have a variety of health benefits.
A few of these include:
- Relaxing tense or sore muscles
- Reducing stress
- Aiding in restful sleep
- Soothing joint pain and arthritis
- Assisting with dry skin and other skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis
Although onsen can be helpful in a number of different ways, make sure you consult with your doctor before using a Japanese onsen if you have any health conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease.
What Japanese Onsen Etiquette Do I Need to Know?
These nine Japanese onsen etiquette tips will help you when visiting an onsen in Japan. All of them are equally important to make sure to read thoroughly after you’ll be able to enjoy yourself with ease. 🙂
1. Yes, You Need to Get NAKED!
GASP, you read that right… you’re going to be naked when you use an onsen. Swimsuits aren’t allowed nor would you see them anywhere at a traditional onsen. While you might be put off by this or feel as if it’s unsanitary, keep reading. You’ll see why nude is the way to go!
Also, if you’re feeling a little shy or skeptical, that’s okay. I felt a little weird the first time I ever went to a public Japanese onsen but now, after visiting countless times, I’ve realized that no one is looking. After all, you’re ALL naked.
If you don’t think you can get past that, that’s alright too. There are a number of private onsen options in Japan that you can enjoy alone, with your partner or family – we’ll cover some in this post.
2. Japanese Onsen Are Gender-Specific, Most of the Time
Since you’re stripping down to your birthday suit you’re probably wondering about co-ed onsen. Most public onsen is gender-specific meaning that men and women have separate onsen to enjoy.
However, as I said earlier, if you are looking for a more romantic setting or would prefer to have more privacy, there are private onsen available in some traditional ryokan. Private onsen usually come at an additional cost and a time limit of roughly 1 hour-1.5 hours. Another option is to rent a room that has a private onsen inside.
Now I did say that onsen are typically gender-specific most of the time, so that does mean some Japanese onsen are co-ed, but it’s not very common anymore so you probably won’t run into that.
3. Shower Before You Enter the Onsen
To keep the onsen water as clean as possible it is vital that you shower prior to entering the onsen or bath. Traditional onsens have a shower nearby and most provide shampoo, conditioner, and soap that you can use.
At public onsen locations, you will be provided with a large and small towel for no charge or a small fee. The large towel is for drying your body and is typically left in the changing area or your locker/cubby.
The smaller towel can be taken to the bath with you to cover yourself slightly when going to and from the onsen. However, it is important that you don’t let the towel touch the water. I typically leave mine in my cubby with my other towel.
4. Tattoos Are Strictly Forbidden
Japanese people typically refrain from having tattoos as they were originally associated with the Yakuza gang. Because of this, nearly all onsen have banned tattoos.
If you have any tattoos you will most likely need to book a private onsen session or a room with a private onsen. There are some Japanese onsen that are beginning to allow tattoos if they are covered up with a patch or bandage.
If you have tattoos, this website is useful for finding tattoo-friendly onsen, beaches, pools, and other locations.
5. Never Enter The Onsen With A Cut or Sore
This might also seem like a given but in order to prevent infections or diseases (for yourself and others) make sure you never enter an onsen with an open sore, cut, or lesion, no matter how small. Out of respect, the same rule applies to women who are currently menstruating.
6. Put Long Hair Up & Out of the Onsen
If you have longer hair remember to put it up towards the top of your head so that it does not go in the water. Why? Well, since you’ve just washed your hair in the shower you may be prone to losing some of your hair and since this is a natural onsen, it can be hard to get out. It is also important to not dunk your head into the water for cleanliness reasons.
7. Keep Noise To A Minimum
Public onsen are typically a place to socialize with others while you relax. If you are carrying on a quiet conversation you shouldn’t disturb anyone, but be sure to keep noise to a minimum. You should also refrain from splashing which I know seems like a given but… I’ve seen it happen.
8. Don’t Drink Alcohol When Using the Onsen
Alcohol is not recommended while soaking in the onsen as the exposure to heat and consumption of alcohol can make you tired and could possibly lead to drowning. If you do decide to drink some sake or sparkling wine before soaking, do so carefully and make sure others are present. After enjoying the onsen, make sure you drink a lot of water or enjoy some hot or cold tea.
9. No Photography Allowed in the Onsen – Period
Considering everyone is naked you wouldn’t think this would even be a topic of discussion, however just to make sure it’s clear – you CANNOT take pictures at or of a public onsen. The photos you see in our post were arranged prior to opening when we worked with a few Japanese onsen when we lived in Japan.
Our Favorite Onsen in Japan & Ryokan
Of course, this Japanese onsen etiquette guide wouldn’t be complete without listing some of our favorites for you. Here’s just a few hot spring towns, onsen, or ryokan we love!
Nishimuraya Properties – Kinosaki Onsen
This quaint town in Japan has some of the best public and private onsen options in the country. Our favorite ryokan hotels there are Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei and Nishimuraya Honkan, they are sister properties that offer luxury amenities with public and private onsen options.
READ MORE: A Luxurious Guide To Kinosaki Onsen
Konansou – Kawaguchiko
While staying in the Fuji Five Lakes area we booked a room at Konansou that had a gorgeous view of Lake Kawaguchiko. Konansou does have rooms with private onsen, but we opted to stay in a regular room and book a session at one of their private onsen.
READ MORE: The Perfect Fuji Five Likes Itinerary
Hells of Beppu – Beppu
Beppu is a city in southern Japan with very unique onsen including the “8 Hells of Beppu” onsen that are purely for viewing, spas to be buried in black sand, and other onsen for relaxing.
Dogo Onsen – Matsuyama
Dogo Onsen is located in the Shikoku region, a lesser traveled spot in Japan. Dogo Onsen Honkan is one of Japan’s oldest and most famous hot springs dating back to 1894. If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan, you might recognize it as Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away.
Noboribetsu – Hokkaido
Noboribetsu is Hokkaido’s most well-known onsen area with Jigokudani (Hell Valley) another natural hot spring that is for viewing only, however, there is also a foot bath down a path in Jigokudani where the water has cooled off enough to soak your feet. There are also a few onsen hotels in the area too.
Yunessun – Hakone
One of the most unique spas we’ve visited in Japan is Yunessun Spa in Hakone. Although it does have traditional-style hot spring baths, there is also a waterpark area that has unique onsen filled with different beverages like coffee, green tea, sake, and wine! This spa is one where you can wear bathing suits. 🙂
Now relax and enjoy the warm, steamy waters of the Japanese onsen for yourself!