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. Below are seven soaking rules to know and live by.
Learn the lingo and logistics
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.
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.
Get completely 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.
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.
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.
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.
When to visit: 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.