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Onsen Etiquette Guide
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Japanese Onsen Etiquette Tips

Onsen etiquette is an important aspect of Japanese culture. Japanese onsen baths are my favorite thing in the world, but it hasn’t always been this way. Today I’ll share with you a tale of how I lost my onsen virginity, but if you’re not into short stories, feel free to skip to the bottom for a comprehensive list of tips to brush up your own proper onsen etiquette for the next time you visit Japan.

An onsen is a Japanese public bath and most often it’s acquired from a natural hot spring source. Yet, the Japanese believe that bathing in an onsen provides numerous health benefits via both detoxifying your body, your mind, as well as your skin though the absorption of beneficial natural minerals found in the hot spring’s water. There’s a belief that the body retains its own natural healing power and an onsen helps encourage its regeneration.

An onsen isn’t that much different than a Turkish hammam, as both are public baths used for spa health purposes. But Japan sits on a hotbed of seismic volcanic activity, therefore natural onsen baths retain a long history as a therapeutic role in this country. Onsen bathing truly is a tranquil natural experience.

Flawless Onsen Etiquette
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A typical changing room

Onsen Guide For Flawless Onsen Etiquette

  • Some of the best onsen baths and rotenburo are affiliated with a Japanese ryokan, or a traditional style Japanese inn. These can be a bit pricey to stay in, but I highly suggest splurging at least one time in your life at a high-quality ryokan. You won’t forget it.
  • A rotenburo is simply an outside bath but I generally hear the word onsen used to refer to the entire bathing area.
  • Each onsen can have a different mineral property in the water-affiliated with a different healing property.
  • I’ve been to many onsen baths before that switch up the baths between the men and women’s side. You may go into the appropriate gender bath at night and arrive the next morning to see it’s been switched. Don’t despair! This happened to me the first time and I had a mild panic attack about the possibility of me bathing in the wrong onsen. But just an FYI.
  • After you get out of the onsen, it’s recommended to dab your towel on your skin to absorb the moisture as to be careful not to wipe off all the beneficial minerals.
  • Some onsen spas have lockers while others simply have baskets. Keep this in mind when carrying valuables.
  • The onsen entrances for both men and women are represented with curtains. Females go through the red curtain, males go through the blue curtain. But it’s always best to confirm with the staff just to be sure.
  • Onsens are almost always nude only.
  • Most of the time, you’re required to take your shoes off before entering through the curtain. Sometimes there’s even a small tote bag outside the entrance so look for one of those.
  • Furo is the word for bath in Japanese and it’s the most important part of onsen etiquette. Imagine everyone just stripping down naked and jumping into the water, ew. After changing out of your clothes, grab a tenugui (towel) and head to the showers. Most people use this towel for modesty reasons while walking about the onsen. Most of the time, these showers are located around the perimeter of the onsen bath. You sit down on a stool, shower with the hose and a bucket of water with cleaning products.
  • It’s etiquette to shower for at least five to ten minutes before entering the bath.
  • Tattoos are often times forbidden. However, if you have a smaller tattoo, you can cover it up with a band-aid and that usually does the trick. But if you’re body is covered with ink, then it’s definitely best to check with the onsen first about their rules.
  • Only use your tenugui hair towel on your hair and make sure it doesn’t fall into the water. Some onsens have strict rules on whether or not they allow your towel to dip into the water. It’s best to watch what others are doing.
  • Don’t throw your towel around or throw it on the floor. There are special baskets inside the locker room for putting used towels.
  • Noise or rudeness is not allowed.
  • And you of course can’t take your cell phone into the onsen to take photographs, no matter how cool the onsen bath looks. However, most of the foot baths are public so feel free to snap away.
  • No food or drink is allowed through the curtain entrance.
  • No smoking is allowed either.
  • Generally, don’t bring anything into the bath e.g., no cell phones, books, etc.. (except for in the foot baths)
  • Don’t forget to browse the onsen skincare products at each spa when you’re finished.
READ  Japan Rail Guide: Using Hyperdia to Travel Japan

Additional Onsen Etiquette Resources

The #1 Rule of Onsen Etiquette is simply being respectful. I hope you enjoyed my review on Japanese Hot Springs Etiquette. Feel free to share your experiences and don’t be afraid to venture out naked!

P.S. Are we friends on Instagram? Find me @thepassportlifestyle and on Pinterest! (see my sidebar)

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7 Comments

  1. James
    July 7, 2015 at 3:52 pm — Reply

    thank you for the great insight!

    how long does one stay in an onsen? can you go back and forth between meals? after all that i read, it was not clear to me if there is a time limit.

    we are schedule to go and stay at Takaragawa Onsen next month with the primary purpose to soak all day if possible!

    • July 14, 2015 at 10:46 pm — Reply

      Hi James, sorry for the late reply!

      You can stay in an onsen pretty much as long as you want. A lot of onsen resorts have food courts inside too where you can shower, eat, go to onsen, relax in the relaxation room, etc…repeat.

      I’m jealous you are going to Takaragawa!! I never made it there but I hear it’s amazing. But generally, you can soak all day as long as you want! Enjoy your trip!

  2. Tracy
    January 21, 2015 at 6:56 pm — Reply
  3. January 18, 2015 at 7:00 am — Reply

    These tips are really useful! I want to visit Japan and an onsen too

    thanks for sharing <3

    kisses

    Francesca http://www.everydaycoffee.it/

    • January 20, 2015 at 11:22 pm — Reply

      Hope you can visit – the onsen experience is one of the highlights of Japan! xx

  4. January 17, 2015 at 10:36 am — Reply

    I would love to try an onsen one day, though I coincidentally just learned the proper word for them today while researching another article. I did hear previously that tattoos weren’t permitted… and since I have one of my hip I figured it would be off-limits if I ever make it to Japan. I did try a traditional Turkish hammam when I was with friends outside of Izmir one time. I had no idea what the etiquette was, but one of the guys who was with us had been before and helped us through. It was a cool experience, though I’m not sure I would have been as comfortable if there hadn’t been a group of at least 5 Dutch guys with me in case something went wrong lol. All in all I love these truly local experiences, even if I feel uncomfortable at the start.

    • January 20, 2015 at 11:27 pm — Reply

      Hopefully you can experience an onsen one day! It’s seriously the most relaxing experience ever…especially in the snow. If your tattoo can cover up with a band aid or a patch then I think you’ll be ok!

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