How to do Japanese Onsen (without offending anyone)

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Onsen (n): Japanese public bath.

Foreigners in Japan are always trying to figure out the Onsen experience (or, once they figure it out, going as often as possible). I’ve been with some experienced Onsen-foreigners and some first-timers, and the one thing I’ve discovered is that no one forgets their first Onsen experience.

A good experience means they keep going again and again, a truly awful experience can scare people from ever going again. I think the most important thing, though, is information. In fact, each “Onsen horror story” had one common element: a lack of information.

So I wanted to write a quick “Things you should know before you go to a Japanese Onsen” mixed with a little bit of a “How to Onsen” post.

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First of all, things you should know about Onsen:

1. You will get naked. If you don’t want to, don’t go. You can’t wear swimsuits. (A while ago a friend told me about when her and her friends went to the Onsen for the first time, they all worse swimsuits. They were politely told that wasn’t allowed.)

2. Do not take pictures. People are naked. Naked people don’t like to get their pictures taken by someone they do not know.

(Side note, I did take pictures, but I also woke up at 6:15am to make it to the hotel Onsen right when it opened, before anyone got there. So it was a victimless crime. I can’t blog if I don’t have pictures.)

3. If you’re on your period (girls), don’t go. You are sharing a public bath with lots of other people, don’t even try to get away with just wearing a tampon.

4. If you have tattoos, cover them with a Band-Aid. You might have to use a very large Band-Aid… but in Japan, tattoos are associated with the mafia- so even if you have a harmless Snoopy tattoo (like one of my teachers back in High School in Japan), cover it up, or you WILL get kicked out.

5. Drink lots of water before you go and if you are starting to feel faint, get out immediately. I’ve had several friends faint while in the Onsen, because they didn’t want to be the only one to get out, or felt awkward sitting on the ledge with their body exposed. Just listen to your body and take care not to faint.

Now that the “warnings” are out of the way, I think you can thoroughly enjoy your Onsen experience. Just in case, I made a step-by-step guide:

How to Onsen in Japan

1. Grab a bath towel, smaller towel,  fresh change of clothes, and a hairband. You can also bring shampoo/conditioner/body wash – Onsens have all of these, but they are usually cheap quality. I personally don’t care, but everyone has different tastes. Go into the correct side. Genders are segregated.

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2. Take off your shoes in the entrance.

3. Go into the main room (usually a tatami mat), grab a basket, and get naked. Put everything except for your smaller towel (you are going to be using this as a sponge/hair accessory), hair band (to tie up your hair), and shampoo/conditioner/body-soap (if applicable) in the basket.

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Most people take off their shirt and bra first and then move to the lower regions.

4. Once you are naked, grab your small towel (you leave the larger bath towel in the basket), hair band, and lotions and head to the next room, the “washing area.”

The "washing area"

The “washing area”

5. Go to the small, hand-held shower area, grab a plastic stool (if you are one of the first ones there, they will be off in the corner), press the button attached to the hose, rinse the stool off, and sit down.

6. Fill up a similar, plastic container with warm water and soap and drop your small towel in. As you wash yourself, you are supposed to use the small towel as a sponge. I always forget.

7. Take a shower using the hand-held shower head. Shampoo and condition your hair, rinse your body, and use the body soap.

The "washing area" version two

The “washing area” version two

8. When you’re finished showering, wring out your hair and tie it in a high ponytail, so that it will not touch the water. Tie the small (slightly wet) towel around your head when you are sitting in the bath.

9. Go to the nearby bath. The water is usually scalding hot. I know some people who can sit in the Onsen for almost 15 minutes without a problem. My limit is about 5 minutes.

(Side note, I mentioned earlier that you should tie your hair up. Please do it. Don’t let your hair touch the water. If your hair is shorter than shoulder length, you probably don’t have to tie it up, but if it is any longer, please tie your hair up. People will be bathing in this water for hours, the last thing they want to see is random hair floating along inside the bath.)

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Men (and sometimes women)

10. Move onto a “colder bath.” When you are walking around, if you want to be modest (or feel awkward being naked around strangers), you can strategically cover yourself up with the small towel.

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In my case, they had an outdoor Onsen. We were up in the mountains skiing, so there was lots of snow.

I met up with a couple friends and we watched the sun rise at 6:30am and snow as gently falling. It was a really magical experience. I would recommend outdoor Onsen to everyone. (Don’t worry, the bath house is surrounded by a wall. Strangers can’t watch you bathe.)

11. Get out of the Onsen and dry yourself off as best as you can with your small, wet towel.

12. Go back to the tatami room that has all your clothes, grab your larger bath towel, and dry off all the way. 

13. Put on your clothes. If you are staying at a hotel with an Onsen, they will usually provide adorable traditional, Japanese robes.

It's fun to go to the Onsen as a couple and wear matching robes

It’s fun to go to the Onsen as a couple and wear matching robes

14. Go to the vanity mirrors, put on lotion (usually provided), and dry your hair. Most Onsens provide lotions, hair dryers, combs, and sometimes hair bands.

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15. Go drink lots of water (or other liquids). Every time I get out of the Onsen, I am incredibly dehydrated.

In any case, I hope you get a change to try out a Japanese Onsen soon! Onsens are one of my favorite parts of Japan; I go whenever I have the chance.

And, of course, if you fall in love with Onsen hot springs in Japan and can’t bear to give them up when you return home (I love the way Onsen water makes my skin feel). You can always buy a pack of Japanese bath salts (taken and dehydrated from some of the famous springs) online. I recommend: 10 Pack Bath Salts (Imported from Hot Springs in Japan)

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About Grace Buchele Mineta

Born and raised in Texas, I am a part-time blogger on the search for the next greatest adventure. In my spare time I enjoy writing, drawing comics, and traveling with my husband, a boxing businessman from Japan. Contact: Website | More Posts

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  • Lari

    What do I do if I have a tattoo on my back which size is 30×15 centimeters? There’s no such a big bandaid to cover this all haha
    Oh… *sigh*

    • http://howibecametexan.com Grace

      Ouch, that’s pretty large…

      Actually, though, I was talking to one of my friends and she said that newer onsens in the major cities will allow tattooed guests (especially if said guest is foreign). General rule of thumb – if there isn’t a huge sign in the front lobby saying “no tattoos” then you should be fine

      • Lari

        Thank you for your answer. I’ve heard some hotels has private onsen, but I wish I could experience a public one and was worried I would never be able to do this. I’ll look carefully for one with no signs haha :)

  • https://www.facebook.com/sue.umezaki Sue Murphy Umezaki

    And, don’t forget that it’s a big no-no to put your small towel in the bath water – it needs to stay on your head (or, just on the side of the bath).

    My most memorable onsen experience was when my daughter was about 5 or 6. We were the very first people in at a hotel onsen in the morning, and while we were enjoying the outdoor bath, talking back and forth with my husband and sons on the other side, another person entered and started washing inside (we could see through the window). My daughter suddenly said, “Mama, there’s a MAN in here.” I looked and thought that maybe it was actually just a woman who looked a bit masculine, but, no, it was a man, indeed. We started shouting to my husband on the other side, which alerted the man, who finally realized his mistake, and, to our great relief, ran out! Whew!

    • http://howibecametexan.com Grace

      Hahahaha. Wow. I cracked up reading this. I did NOT expect that ending. I cannot believe that actually happened!

      I’ve gotten it down to an art when bringing my first time foreign friends to the Onsen. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had friends bring bathing suits…

      I’m not going to lie, though, I find it kind of weird how you can hear what is going on on the other side of the wall. Sometimes I can eat the men chatting – it is especially uncomfortable when the wall is rather low, too…

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  • http://circlingjapan.wordpress.com utzhegde

    Just wanted to say this is an extremely helpful article (especially the pictures!). I have zero experience with onsen, so will definitely use this as a starting point when I visit Japan this fall :). Keep up the great blogging!

    • gracebuchele

      Thanks! I hope you have fun at onsen!

  • jennylou

    don’t forget the lovely saunas followed by the cold baths. Use the mats next to the sauna to sit on or if they don’t have any use your small towel. Onsens are amazing!

    • http://howibecametexan.com gracebuchele

      I love the saunas!
      Onsen is such a relaxing experience :)

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  • http://twitter.com/bajonista Aych Arr Ewe (@bajonista)

    I love going to King Spa in Dallas. I get to be the non-Korean who explains how to King Spa to the other non-Koren first timers I see wandering around in the changing room, all trying to wear swimsuits and stuff.

    • http://twitter.com/bajonista Aych Arr Ewe (@bajonista)

      My response makes more sense in the context that I thought it would appear *below* Anonumous’s comment down there.

    • http://howibecametexan.com gracebuchele

      Hahaha. Wow, that must have been fun.

      Every once and a while when I go to onsen hotsprings with other foreigners, I have to gently explain that swimsuits are not necessary (or allowed).
      That’s cool they have onsen in Texas, I had no idea! Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I love onsen and bath houses! It’s what I miss the most about Japan. Luckily there are 2 Korean spas not too far away. Great article! I didn’t know the small towel should double as a sponge. I always wrap it on my head in the Korean style. :P

    • http://howibecametexan.com gracebuchele

      Thanks! I love Onsen too, I try to go at least once a month.
      I actually didn’t figure out how to correctly use the small towel until my third month in Japan, when one of my Japanese friends showed me.

      I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Korean spa – but that sounds wonderful!

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