How to enjoy onsen? What are rules and etiquette going into it? The onsen culture is one of the most distinctive parts about Japan, but going to a public onsen can be intimidating for first-timers. The sooner you can put aside your inhibitions, the faster you can immerse yourself (literally) into what is a unique cultural activity. So to help you alleviate your anxieties, today we have a guide on the do and don’ts of how to enjoy onsen!
1. Take off your shoes
The first step of how to enjoy onsen: remove your shoes at the genkan (entrance)! In an onsen, there is usually a designated area like a cubby or shoe shelf where you can place them before you proceed into the onsen. Some may also provide you with slippers to wear.
2. Check if the onsen is tattoo-friendly
This is for the folks who have ink – it’s important to ask beforehand if the onsen you’re going to is tattoo-friendly. As a general rule, tattoos are not allowed into onsens, and the reason for this is their association with crime and the yakuza. Times and attitudes are slowly changing, but it’s still crucial to check beforehand.
If your tattoos are small, some onsens may issue you with skin-coloured patches and allow you entry. Others may not accept you at all, be it if your pieces are big or small. In many cases, your best bet is to search specifically for a tattoo-friendly onsen, or visit a ryokan with private onsen.
3. Enter the correct onsen
While many will use colours (red or pink, and blue) to distinguish between men’s and women’s section, others may only display the kanji character. For men, look out for 男 (otoko, which means male) and for women, look for 女 (onna, meaning female).
4. Get naked
Perhaps the most difficult part of how to enjoy onsen is removing every piece of clothing that is on you. There will be a dressing room where you can store your clothing. Before you ask, no, swimsuits are not allowed! The onsen tradition is to be completely naked, and any kind fabric in the water is seen as ‘contamination’, which is a big faux pas.
It may be uncomfortable being completely naked in front of strangers, but when in Japan, do as the Japanese do. The locals have been going to onsen since young so the nakedness isn’t anything new to them. The one who cares most is you!
5. Wash yourself
Once you get over the initial awkwardness of having to be naked in front of strangers, it’s time to wash yourself before you go into the onsen pool. Yes, the onsen is essentially a big bath pool, but nobody wants to soak in other people’s filth, so washing yourself is a considerate thing to do.
It’s okay if you don’t have your own soap, as most onsen will provide them. Sit yourself down on a stool in front of a shower head and scrub away! After you are done cleaning yourself, the last step is to clean the stool and tidy up the general area before getting in the onsen.
5. Tie up your hair
Ladies (and men) who have long hair should tie them up and keep them out of the water as much as possible.
6. Adjust your body temperature
Also known as kakeyu, this is the act of pouring water on yourself to adjust your body temperature before you enter the hot bath. The water can be quite hot (sometimes above 40°C), so you want to gently ease your body temperature up instead of giving it a shock by going into the onsen right away.
7. Drink lots of water before and after
An important part of how to enjoy onsen: make sure you are hydrated and well-rested! Even though you’re soaking in a pool, you will be losing quite a lot of liquid through dehydration! So make sure to drink up after to replenish the fluids.
1. Let your towel touch the water
Many onsen will provide a hand towel, sometimes at a small fee. This towel provides a degree of modesty for those who need it, and it is also used to wipe away sweat in the humid air. Your towel should never touch the water (again, it goes back to not contaminating the water.)
Your towel can be put by the side of the pool or folded and balanced on top of your head. It is said that doing that can help prevent dizziness! If your towel accidentally drops into the water, wring it out outside of the bath.
2. Drink alcohol
Some onsen serves warm sake to guests and it’s fine to indulge in a small amount, but copious amounts of drinking is definitely not recommended. There is an entire science behind it but basically, it will cause your body to dehydrate too much and too quickly, which can have dangerous consequences.
3. Stay for too long
On the topic of dehydration, staying in an onsen for too long can also cause your body to overheat. A good rule of thumb is to leave when you start to sweat a lot. If you experience any dizziness, it is also a good idea to remove yourself from the bath and let your body cool down.
Some onsens also have baths with different temperatures, so it’s a great idea to alternate between the warmer and cooler baths. Not to mention, it does wonders for sore and tight muscles!
4. Disturb the peace
As with most places in Japan, it’s important to maintain the peace of your setting. While going to an onsen can be a great cultural (and sometimes social) experience, try to keep the noise level down if you’re chatting or making a new friend.
Also, no running, horsing, or splashing around – you’re not at a water park! And even though you’re in a bath pool, you should never swim or submerge your head underwater.
5. Take photographs
It goes without saying that since everyone is naked, you should never take photographs in an onsen!
6. Add water into the onsen
If the bath gets too hot, it’s a big no-no to take cooler water from elsewhere and add it into the hot bath. Just remember that the water should always be as ‘pure’ as possible – only clean bodies, no fabrics, and definitely no water from elsewhere!