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.

bathing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.