If it’s your first visit to Japan, you might be put off visiting an onsen because you are not sure of the correct practices or etiquette. Don’t be. Onsens are casual places for Japanese people, and once you have a grasp of the basics you’ll fit in perfectly.
what to bring
Bring your towels with you: one large bath towel for your body, and a smaller one to bring inside the onsen with you. Your hotel may provide these towels for you – the smaller towel is British hand-towel sized but finer, almost like a muslin cloth.
If you have long hair, bring a hair tie with you. If you have particular shampoo, body wash or other product you prefer to use, bring that too, although all onsens have plenty of (cheap) body wash, shampoo and conditioner available. Don’t expect to do anything particularly personal like shaving your legs in an onsen – keep to the basics.
Pay your money at the counter, remove your shoes and take a pair of indoor slippers from the floor in front of you. There will be lockers in reception where you leave your shoes and take the key with you. Access to the changing rooms is usually through a doorway with a red noren (curtain) for women and a blue one for men. All onsens are gender separated.
the changing room
Choose a locker with a number or location you will remember. Try not to stand in front of your locker whilst you are getting changed, as you might be blocking access to others. Use the benches. Strip naked and put all your belongings, including big towel and slippers, into the locker. Only bring with you any toiletries you need, your small towel, a hair tie if needed and your locker key which is usually on a wrist band.
Use the toilet before entering the onsen area – as soon as you get into the water you’ll want to go!
If you have a tattoo it may be necessary to cover it up with a plaster – some onsens do not allow people with visible tattoos due to the connection with gangs. Best to ask beforehand.
Don’t visit an onsen with any kind of open cut or wound on your body.
When you enter the onsen area, you may see a large container of water with ladles – use a ladle to rinse off your feet before moving further inside. One or more walls will be lined with individual washing areas, each with a small stool, a basin, hot and cold taps, a shower head and a mirror.
Set your things up and give your body a good scrub (you can use your small towel as it’s going to get wet anyway). You don’t need to wash your hair if you don’t want to, just tie it up.
Rinse your body well. You can pop back and leave your personal toiletries back in your locker at this stage if you wish.
If you do wash your hair and plan on leaving conditioner in your hair while bathing, make sure all of your hair is carefully tied up. It is not acceptable to contaminate the water with any type of toiletry product.
Move gently so as not to disturb the water too much. Bring your little towel with you but never, ever let it enter the water. In many onsens, people use the towel to cover parts of their body as they move around outside the water (draped down their front, for example, or folded and held across the pubic hair area), but in other places people move freely. Watch what others do and copy them. When in the water, find a spot to leave your towel on the side, or fold it and place it on your head.
Typically the water will be around 40-45 degrees celsius, but some are cooler and some even hotter. Be careful you don’t stay too long and get an “onsen hangover” – plan to stay in the water no longer than twenty minutes before cooling down. You can do this by heading back to the shower area and showering with cool water for a minute, or if it’s a cool day at an outdoor pool, just hop up on the side and let the air cool your body for a while before hopping back in.
Don’t shower after bathing – the minerals in the onsen water are supposed to be good for your skin. Use your small towel to dry yourself off a little before leaving the bathing area. There are usually hairdryers available to use in the locker room, and mirrors to help with getting dressed and ready.
Drink plenty of water afterwards, as the onsen will dehydrate you. There are always plenty of vending machines in the reception area.
Soon, you’ll be a natural, and you’ll pop into every hotel onsen wondering how you managed without them!