How to Use a Japanese Onsen

How to Use a Japanese Onsen

Japan has a unique culture and heritage. Whether you are learning Japanese or heading to Japan for a vacation, there are lots of experiences to try as a visitor. One of these is the onsen or bathing in natural springs. Here’s how to bathe Japanese-style.

Find Your Onsen

An onsen is a natural hot spring with water temperatures at 25 degrees Celsius or above. They have at least one of 19 defined minerals within the water. There are over 2,300 onsen all over Japan. Some are within resorts and hotels, whereas others are located within natural spring areas. There are many places to choose from and with a little research, you’ll find one suitable. Do check the male and female opening hours, as some onsen have separate times for men and women.

Understand the Culture

In Japan, an onsen is taken completely nude. This is part of the heritage of the country and has been in existence since the eighth century. It is a great way to get an insight into Japanese culture. Do some research before you go to understand how the onsen operate, as many do not speak English. That’s also a good reason for taking the time to learn Japanese online.

Learn the Etiquette

Japanese onsen have several rules and traditions. Understanding them will help you have a positive experience and avoid offending anyone. When you go to the onsen changing room, look for the blue kanji sign for men or the red one for women. You will need to undress completely and put your belongings in a locker or basket. If you have soap and toiletries, take them with you to the next stage.

In the shower area, find a place by the showers. You will be given a plastic stool and a bowl. It is considered bad manners to sit where someone else has left their belongings, even if they are not there. You’ll need to wash and ensure you are thoroughly clean before heading to the bath area itself. Make sure you tidy after yourself and wash down the stool. Tattoos are frowned upon in Japan, as they are connected with gangs and crime. Some people with large tattoos may be refused entry to an onsen. An alternative is to find an inn with a kashikiriburo, or private bath, where you can bathe and not offend anyone with your tattoos.

Get Into the Onsen

One of the most important things to remember is that the water temperature in an Onsen is hot and can be up to 42 degrees Celsius (107.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Some places have several baths where the temperature varies so you can start with a cooler one. Be careful when getting into the bath itself as it is hot, so take it slowly. Do not jump into the onsen, splash others or swim — this is taboo. You will have been given a (very small) towel in the changing area. This must be kept out of the water. Some people fold and place the towel on their heads to keep cool. If the towel slips into the water, wring it outside the bath. Do not put your face in the water. The heat and some minerals in the water could be harmful if they get in your eyes. Talking loudly is not acceptable in an onsen, so if you plan to practice some Japanese words, be aware that most people will appreciate a greeting but not a long conversation in the bath. If they speak to you, then you’ll have a wonderful opportunity to speak some Japanese.

When you have finished in the onsen, wipe away any excess water or sweat as best you can with that small towel before going back in the changing area. Once you have dressed, you may find some onsen have areas where you can relax with a drink to complete your experience.

Images via Pixabay

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