Japanese Onsen 101

Japanese Onsen 101

Dos and Don’ts in Hot Springs in Japan

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Aaah, Japanese onsen. A heavenly gift from the above (or more like below, perhaps). In my life few things are better than soaking in the hot springs while looking at snow-capped Mt. Fuji, sipping sake and shochu, enjoying sushi and hot pot in my ryokan room, and exploring a century-old onsen town in my yukata.

Onsen is imply a must thing to do during your visit to Japan. While hot springs bubble up everywhere in this country, Hakone, located two hours from Tokyo, is hands down the most popular onsen town if not the best hot springs in Japan.

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For hundreds of years Japanese have enjoyed onsen for various health benefits and as a site of socialization. In the process, they’ve developed a set of rules on how to do it.

You don’t want to look lost in the change room or get frowned upon for breaking the rules unknowingly. My goal today is to give you Japanese onsen 101. Here is the list of basic things you should and shouldn’t do while taking onsen in Japan.

Step 1 Go full monty

In the change room, take off all your clothes, including all your underwear. Put all your clothes in a basket provided there. At most of onsen places, you aren’t allowed to wear a swimsuit. Just take a wash towel and go inside the onsen now. Without, of course, your smartphone or camera.

Step 2 Wash, wash and more wash

As you walk into the onsen room, don’t jump in there. You’ll get frowned upon immediately. First, pick up a small basket and a stool, go to the washing space and wash yourself thoroughly. Japanese wash their body with heaps of body wash like there is no tomorrow before they soak into the onsen. They don’t want to make the onsen water dirty, mainly for others.

Step 3 Enter the onsen, with towel on your head

Once your body is sparkling clean, it’s time to go into the onsen. Try not to splash the water if there are people around. You can take your wash towel with you in the water, but make sure it won’t be in the onsen. Soaking the towel in the onsen water is one of the worst crimes you could commit. Many Japanese people put their towel on the top of their head.

At some onsen you are allowed to bring in drinks, but you aren’t allowed to drink or eat in the onsen at most of onsen facilities.

Step 4 Dry your body before leaving

When you are finishing up, return the basket and the stole to where they were. Dry your body with your wash towel before you go back into the change room. Or at least try to get rid of water on your body with your hands so that you won’t be dripping water on the floor in the change room.

Step 5 Down the coffee or strawberry milk drink

You won’t miss it – most of the onsen places have coffee and strawberry milk drinks available. For many decades, they are the most symbolic drinks of onsen or public bathes in Japan. Don’t think too much – just do it and take a selfie.

Now, before you start booking an onsen hotel, here is one thing you need to check – have you got a tattoo? If you do, read on below.

Sidestep the tattoo ban

If you have a tattoo, onsen bathhouses might refuse you from entering. No matter what you tell them (“I’m not a yakuza or part of an organized crime! My tattoo says “I love my mom”!”), they won’t let you in. Begging or bribing won’t work, either. This has nothing to do with racism or xenophobia. Japanese came up with this rule to keep onsen bathhouses a safe place for all.

There are two things you could do to sidestep the tattoo challenge. First, book accommodation with a private onsen in your own room. There, you can do almost whatever you want to do or dream of doing. There are also a few public bathhouses with private rooms that can be rented from one hour onwards. Hakone Yuryo was pretty good when I took my shy European family there.

Second, go to public onsen houses where you can wear swimsuits. As long as your tattoo is covered by the swimsuits, they will let you in. Hakone Yuessunand Hilton Odawara Resort & Spa (The Bade Zone) are pretty cool. The former is fun if you are in a group of friends, while the latter is suitable for couples and mature visitors.

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Now, it doesn’t sound too bad, does it? As long as you are considerate, hygienic and not too loudly, you will have no problem and come out of onsen feeling absolutely refreshed.

And a coffee milk will just complete your authentic onsen experience