While Switzerland has its terme baden, Hungary its furdo, and Iceland its hot springs, Japan is home to the omnipresent onsen. These soothing baths were first recorded in Japan as early as the 8th century. They became customary in Japanese culture around the same time Buddhism was popularized in the country, and today, more than 3,000 onsen are scattered across the archipelago from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Onsen are recognized for their purifying health benefits and are popularly frequented by both locals and visitors. But before you enter the traditional baths, it’s important to review the fundamentals of onsen etiquette.
What is a Japanese onsen?
Japanese onsen are frequently confused with sento, baths filled with artificially heated water, and ofuro, private soaking tubs made from materials like cypress or basalt stone. But traditional onsen are hot baths filled with geothermal water sourced from Japan’s active volcanoes. (In Japanese culture, this distinction is important.)
Onsen are usually—but not always—part of ryokan, traditional Japanese guesthouses. The public bathing areas tend to be divided by noren (traditional divider curtains with vertical slits), with the women’s side marked in red and the men’s in blue. In Japanese culture, yukata (Japanese robes) and geta (traditional wooden sandals) are worn before entering the bath water.
The best time to visit a Japanese onsen
Across Japan, the busiest onsen times tend to be before and after dinner and breakfast. Most public onsen close during midday hours, so plan your trip accordingly.
Below are some rules you should know before you come.
Shower (and scrub) before you soak
Onsen are strictly for soaking, meditating, and relaxing. Most bathing areas have changing rooms where you start the onsen experience by scrubbing yourself down in the shower. Be sure to wash your body and hair thoroughly with the provided soap and shampoo. Because some foreigners disregard this rule, it’s not uncommon in onsen changing rooms for members of older generations to watch gaijin (foreigners) closely. A quick rinse might elicit glares from old-timers who won’t hesitate to ask you to re-shower. So scrub all the nooks and crannies, and don’t even try to enter an onsen with dry hair.
Leave your electronic devices at home
Even though many Japanese onsen are extraordinarily scenic (think: rushing rivers, bamboo forests, moss-covered stones, and mountain views surrounding), using phones and cameras inside the bathing areas is explicitly prohibited. If you’re going to visit a Japanese onsen, the rules are simple: Resist the urge to Instagram your visit and don’t ruin the tech-free atmosphere for others. The meditative element is an important aspect of the onsen experience anyway, so chances are you’ll be glad you left your phone behind.
Keep your head above the water
In the baths, dunking your head underwater is frowned upon, even after shampooing. Many onsen provide small towels for visitors, which some bathers moisten with water from the shower to lay across their heads while soaking. This is allowed—as long as the cloth doesn’t touch the bath water. If your towel does accidentally fall in, remove it quickly and wring it out somewhere outside the bath.
Speak quietly (or not at all)
Onsen are not for swimming, nor are they places for grooming, splashing, drinking, floating, discussing politics, or laughing loudly with friends. In Japan, bathing in these hot spring baths is a deeply traditional ritual associated with the Buddhist practice of cleansing and purifying the body. When you visit an onsen, take advantage of the opportunity to meditate, reflect on yourself, and simply enjoy the view. You’ll emerge post-soak feeling purified, both mentally and physically.
Japanese onsen FAQs
Are tattoos allowed in Japanese onsen?
In Japanese culture, tattoos are associated with the country’s yakuza (mafia). For this reason, tattoos are strictly forbidden at most Japanese onsen, although attitudes are changing in some areas. Still, if an onsen staffer sees your tattoo, you could be asked to leave the bathing area. Before entering an onsen, cover up any small tattoos with a bandage or waterproof “tattoo sticker.” Travelers with larger tattoos or full sleeves can soak in kashikiri-buro (private baths) or visit a tattoo-friendly onsen.
Do you have to get naked?
It surprises many to learn that the Japanese, like the Germans and Finnish, have very few inhibitions about being nude in public bathing areas. Admittedly, sitting naked with strangers in simmering spring water is not for everyone. But opting to visit a traditional Japanese onsen means understanding that wearing a bathing suit or underwear in the baths is strictly prohibited. Most onsen are separated by sex, but some public outdoors onsen are not, so be aware of the rules ahead of time and prepare accordingly.
Places you can visit for a Japanese onsen experience
- Where: Beppu, Ōita
- Visit: takegawaragroup.jp; ¥300 (about US$2.50) for an adult ticket
Founded in the late 1800s, Takegawara Onsen can be distinguished by its Karahafu-style curved roof. Not only can you bathe in the waters of a hot spring here, but you can also cover yourself in a sand bath known as sunayu, which is heated by the onsen’s water. Beyond Takegawara, there are other seismic activities to explore in this popular onsen area, including the “Hells of Beppu,” where hot springs reach temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Where: Sapporo, Hokkaido
- Visit: hoheikyo.co.jp; ¥1,000 (US$8) for an adult ticket
Drive about an hour from Sapporo City to get to Hoheikyo onsen, which directly supplies its water from the ground to its baths without making contact with air. Hoheikyo’s open-air bath immerses you in northern Japan’s nature—come in the autumn and the changing colors of distant mountains make for a visual treat.
- Where: Tanabe, Wakayama
- Visit: tb-kumano.jp/en/places/yunomine; ¥800 (US$6) for an adult ticket
If you’re looking for some privacy during your soak, head to Tsubo-yu Onsen in Yunomine village, which is about an hour’s drive east of Tanabe. This cabin-housed rock tub is large enough for two people and first come first serve, so no need to reserve for your 30-minute time slot. The onsen, along with the two other onsen in Yunomine, are a popular stop for pilgrims walking the Kumano Kudo trail.
This article was originally published in 2017; it was updated on January 29, 2023, with current information. Chloe Arrojado contributed reporting.