onsen etiquette

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.

on arrival

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.IMG_8367

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.

before bathing

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.


after bathing

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!

onsen town

First thing I realise is that I’m going to get the footwear thing wrong. We arrive at our beautiful little ryokan on the main drag of this little hot springs resort town, and immediately our sturdy, Gore-Tex lined walking shoes are spirited away in favour of some plain brown guest house slippers. When we reach our room we must remember to walk no further than one or two steps inside before removing even these items of footwear, and offer nothing to the fragile tatami mats but bare or stockinged feet.

I have chosen a special yukata, or summer kimono, to celebrate Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season. My bright pink floral creation is at odds with the regulation ryokan muted greys, but I love it. A staff member shows me how to dress myself correctly. Hitch the yukata up so that the bottom of the long diagonal collar is aligned with the hipbone. Always fold the left over the right side, never the other way around unless you are dressing a corpse. Tie the first narrow belt tightly around the waist and fold the extra fabric down over it, making sure the lines are straight all around the body. Take your wide obi belt in appropriate contrasting colour and wrap it twice around the folded-down fabric, finishing with a bow to the front. Fold the tails of the bow around itself so that they fall neatly over the front of the bow. Twist the obi around 180 degrees so that the bow is at the back. Voilà.
In Orlando’s case it’s a little easier: put on yukata, folding the left side over the right side. Tie with narrow obi belt around hips. Voilà.

Braving unseasonably chilly weather in a yukata without an under-layer of thermals is unwise, especially if nursing a cold. Happily, both of us have packed some warm undergarments so we are good to go. We pop a traditionalhaori jacket over our yukata, navigate our feet into a pair of tabi (toe socks) and clamber on board a pair of geta (wooden clogs). We are ready.


We clip-clop our way awkwardly down the street until we realise that nobody is paying us a blind bit of notice. Everybody else is similarly dressed and focused more on not falling off their own geta as they promenade. Different ryokan have different yukata colours and patterns, so you can recognise your fellow ryokan-dwellers and check out what other patterns you like on others.

The canals of the back streets are lined with willows and cherry blossoms. Ignoring the misty rain, we stroll arm in arm along the streets and laneways, peering down an alley here and into a shop window there.

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One or two nooks and crannies have foot onsens, where the tired or timid can sit fully clothed and soak their feet in the hot, healing waters.


Kitsch gift shops jostle for position with old-fashioned rifle ranges and pachinko parlours, where kids of all ages appear to be revelling in the chance to shoot ancient rifles at dodgy-looking plastic figurines of gods and goddesses. Nearby more modern games parlours are almost completely empty by comparison. There aren’t too many dining options, probably because most ryokans offer full board, but there are plenty of ice cream parlours and coffeehouses to pop into between dips.

Our first onsen is, fittingly, Kono-Yu (Hot Spring of Stork), the first bathing house in Kinosakionsen. Legend has it that storks used to bathe their wounds in the marsh on this spot, before the onsen town was founded. On a Monday lunchtime the place is quiet enough. We deposit our geta in a locker in reception before going our separate ways.

The ladies changing room could be that of any municipal fitness centre or swimming pool. I carefully disrobe, folding my haori, obi belt and yukata, locking everything into a second locker. Eyes down and naked, I tiptoe to the door.

The indoor onsen is in the same large, high-ceilinged room as the wash stations. I sit on a small plastic stool and use a basin and shower to wash myself before bathing. I slide into the waters of the large indoor pool, the hot, slightly sulphurous waters a welcome change from the chilly conditions outside. I share the pool with an older lady who alternates between the pool and the wash point, using basins of cold water to refresh her body and lengthen her stay.

The outdoor pool is a few steps away, surrounded by trees and under a large wooden structure which traps some of the steam and keeps the rain away. I sit with two or three older women, staring out at the drizzling rain, breathing in the steamy air and exhaling all my worries and anxieties. Now and again I hop up onto some large stones and cool down before immersing myself again.

Somehow an hour passes in the leafy quietness. I gather my thoughts and cool down with a few basins full of cool water over the body before slipping quietly away into the changing room. There, I expertly (by now) don my yukata, tie my obi, slide the ornate bow to the small of my back and wander out into the cool air, ready for a pot of green tea before doing it all over again later in the afternoon.

a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.

tokyo to osaka

The Japan Rail officer on the opposite platform performs a brief balletic ritual as the Shinkansen pulls away exactly on time. In precise and well-practised gestures, he ostentatiously points at his shining silver watch and then at the departing train with a white-gloved hand, signifying its timely departure. Apparently, all of the officers’ watches are synchronised. He gestures to the officers in front of and behind him along the platform. He points at his watch again with his index finger, reciting something aloud – I can’t tell what of course – but I imagine he is announcing proudly that another JR Shinkansen, that technological wonder of Japan, has departed bang on time.
This isn’t my first rodeo, but I still allow myself a brief nod of impressed acknowledgement when our Shinkansen stops with all the doors precisely aligned to the politely waiting queues of people, helped by the platform officer’s ballet in reverse. We take our seats beside an unusually tall man, and the train glides away silently at zero seconds past 12:17.

We settle in to brunch, two hastily purchased bento boxes, dumplings for me, eel and tiny fish for Orlando. The ticket inspector strolls past, turning to smile and bow before departing the carriage. It’s such a small gesture in a way, but speaks a multitude about the importance the Japanese put on courtesy and order.
Officially, Peak Hanami starts tomorrow. As we wind through urban and semi-rural areas, more and more blossom-covered cherry trees become apparent, lining a canal here, surrounding a small town park there, popping up one at a time on street corners and postage-stamp-sized gardens.
The train hugs the coast, past wide river outlets, huge wharves and cosy coves. The urban sprawl is unabated, punctuated only occasionally by patches of rural living. Paddy fields sit alongside car parks, apartment blocks alongside traditionally-built homes with ornate tiled roofs. Painstakingly trimmed camellia bushes fill every tiny space in one town, right up to the gates of an enormous Shiseido factory. Now and again the pastoral setting is disturbed by a gleaming solar panel farm where once rows of greenhouses stood. I spot a Denso Tape factory, which casts my mind back to my days as a young gas engineer. 727 Cosmetics seem to prefer billboards in the middle of agricultural land. What’s the logic there?
The towns themselves are not picturesque or charming, really, although many laneways and older houses catch my eye as we speed by. The land around the residential streets are often divided into allotments where potatoes and pumpkins grow. In the less built-up areas you can see how the land has been used in the same way for many years. A narrow laneway survives still, wedged between an old garden wall and a new factory; a crowded graveyard nestles amongst the modern buildings; an old lady dressed in pale blue rides her bicycle in a leisurely fashion past a street of modern two-storey homes.
Every town, large or small, appears to have a baseball park, and I lose count of the number of Ferris wheels I see on the three-hour journey. The enormous Dragons baseball park in Nagoya is decked out in blue and red, the seats huddled intimately around the hallowed turf in the centre. We stop briefly at Nagoya station, swapping one cargo of dark-suited men for another, seasoned with a handful of older women with shopping trolleys. With living space at a premium, I take note of the many clever devices apartment-dwellers employ to dry as much laundry as possible on their tiny balconies. I wonder where I could buy some of them for myself.

Kyoto’s ancient courtyards, canals and rooftop spaces are drenched in cherry blossoms. Part of me wishes we were disembarking here, to revisit its temples and laneways. The platform master once again does his performance, checking his shining silver watch, gesturing with one white-gloved hand towards the front, then the rear, finally pointing in triumph at the digital clock at his workstation. Another Shinkansen departs on time, all is well in the world.
Next stop, Osaka.

letter to the emperor

Your Imperial Majesty Akihito –

having just got back from a holiday in your country I am writing to tell you how much we enjoyed Japan.

In particular the Japanese people were just great: friendly, helpful, English-speaking and courteous.

I was most impressed by the level of courtesy shown by everybody. I was particularly fond of how the ticket inspectors and tea ladies on the trains bowed nicely on entering and leaving the carriages. I also liked the way everybody in a shop or restaurant would call out hello when I walked in, and then call out goodbye when I left. One or two people went out of their way to help us when we needed directions or simply just looked lost.

Everywhere was really clean too: I have never seen escalator handrails being cleaned and polished so frequently. However it was strange to see how few litter bins there were  – one friend has suggested that Japanese people do not need litter bins because they don’t eat as much junk food walking around.

Your temples and shrines are lovely. We visited as many as we could but sadly only just scratched the surface. We shall return another time to see more of them.



The only small niggle I would have is that your food can be quite bland. There is a lovely vegetable called a chilli which I would recommend to you and your country. I am most fond of it and missed it a lot when in Japan. In fact I recommend all vegetables to you, in much larger quantities than they seem to be served in Japan. They are really good for your health.

tatami food

On the subject of food, I would also recommend hot noodles to you rather than cold ones. I really don’t understand the cold noodle thing.

cold noodles

I was delighted to see that all toilets had heated seats and lots of automatic warm squirty water. The one in the airport, which also had the recorded sound of flushing which you could use to mask other sounds, was my particular favourite. I miss the heated seats.


We travelled quite a few times on the bullet trains and were very impressed with their speed and efficiency. I loved the pink ladies who waited in line along the platform to be ready to speed-clean as soon as the train came in. The way that the seats reversed so that you are always facing the direction of travel was wonderful. And I liked that the train drivers wear white gloves. Again, the only small thing was that there are just so many of them, my view was often obscured by a bullet train going in the opposite direction. Not sure how you can fix this really.


I have many photos of women wearing traditional dress whilst going about their daily business. I never realised how many Japanese people still wear traditional dress – I was delighted to see this and took lots of photos. My partner thought I was being a bit of a Big Game Hunter in the end, but I could not get enough of all those lovely kimono.

kimono girls

kimono ladies 2

kimono Irishwoman

It was lovely of you to arrange that the cherry blossom season would be in full swing when we arrived. Orlando did not understand what all the fuss was about, but I took about as many photos as your citizens did.

hanami 1

hanami 2

Anyway, we were delighted with our holiday and promise to come back another time to see more of Kyoto. Please pass on our compliments to all of your citizens.