While Switzerland has its terme baden, Hungary its furdo, and Iceland its hotpots, Japan is home to the omnipresent onsen, soothing hot spring baths scattered across the archipelago from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The baths have been in use in Japan since at least the 8th century, arriving alongside the introduction of Buddhism. And for frequent visitors to Japan like myself, they can become highly addictive. (I’ve visited over 50 and never tire of them.) But before you soak, a quick review of the fundamentals of onsen etiquette will go a long way to improve your experience. Below are seven soaking rules to live by.
1. Learn the Lingo
There’s some confusion around the term onsen, so let’s start by getting a grip on the lingo. Onsen are filled with water that’s heated naturally from geothermal sources, courtesy of Japan’s active volcanoes. They are frequently confused with sento, baths filled with artificially heated water (often found in cities), and ofuro, private, deep-soaking tubs made from materials like hinoki (cypress) or basalt stone. Onsen are usually—but not always—part of hotels or ryokan, traditional Japanese guest houses. Whether attached to a property or not, they tend to be sprawling bath complexes divided by sex, with a women’s side marked by a red noren (curtain) and a men’s side in blue, each offering different baths and views. Most properties swap the noren each morning so guests can experience both sides during an overnight stay. Typically, the indoor baths are simple and straightforward, while more elaborate outdoor baths offer haiku-inspiring surroundings, with views of nearby forests or mountains. To really get into the spirit, wear the yukata (Japanese robes) and geta (traditional wooden sandals) to and from the onsen. They can be found in your room. The busiest onsen times are before and after dinner and breakfast. Most close during midday hours.
2. Shower Before You Soak
Onsen are not for bathing, but rather for soaking, meditating, and relaxing. This is why most are equipped with banquettes of mirrored sit-down showers where you will start the onsen experience by first scrubbing yourself down with the fastidiousness of a neurosurgeon. In the showers, wash yourself and your hair very thoroughly with the soaps and shampoos provided. (Or bring your own.) Don’t even try to enter the onsen with dry hair. A quick “drive-by” rinse at the showers will elicit glares from old-timers who won’t hesitate to ask you to re-shower. Because so many foreigners disobey this rule, it’s not uncommon for older generations of Japanese to watch gaijin (foreigners) closely. So treat this shower like it’s your wedding day—scrub all the nooks and crannies.
3. Get Completely Naked
Admittedly, simmering naked in 104-degree Fahrenheit water with total strangers who don’t speak your language is not for everyone. It surprises many to learn that the Japanese, like the Germans and Finnish, have very few inhibitions about being nude. Many believe that being nude with colleagues offers a humbling “skinship” that strengthens social bonds. Under no circumstances can you wear a bathing suit in the onsen. And you can most definitely not soak wearing your underwear. Clothing is dirty, so prepare to go in the buff or don’t go at all. Most onsen are separated by sex, but some public outdoor ones are not, so understand the rules ahead of time and be prepared to show some skin.
4. Keep Your Head Above Water
Human hair is considered dirty in Japan, so dunking your head underwater, even after shampooing, is frowned upon. Most onsen will give you a large towel and a hand towel when you enter, and some bathers wear the hand towel on their heads. You can do the same, but understand that the towel touching the onsen water is a near criminal offense. Moisten it with water from your shower and lay it neatly across your head while you soak. If the towel does accidentally fall into the water, remove it quickly from the onsen and wring it out somewhere outside the bath.
5. Be Quiet
Onsen are not for swimming. Nor are they places for grooming, splashing, drinking, floating, discussing politics, or talking and laughing loudly with friends. A little chit-chat and a few giggles are fine, but don’t forget this is a sanctuary for relaxing and healing, not a water park. Take advantage of the opportunity to meditate, reflect on yourself, and simply enjoy the view, and you’ll emerge post-soak feeling purified, both mentally and physically.
6. Hide Your Ink
Although attitudes are changing in some areas, tattoos are strictly forbidden at most onsen. If a staffer sees your tattoo, you will likely be asked to leave. In Japan, tattoos are associated with the country’s mafia, yakuza, and seen as body mutilation, especially by elders. If you have a small tattoo, cover it up with a bandage or waterproof “tattoo sticker” sold at drugstores and convenience stores. If you have a bigger tattoo or a sleeve, you might find it best to keep it covered at all times and organize a private onsen for you and your travel companions, which are widely available and often just as beautiful.
7. Skip the Phones and Cameras
Many onsen are extraordinarily scenic, offering perfectly art-directed tableaux of Mount Fuji, dewy bamboo gardens, mossy stones, or cascading waterfalls that beg to be captured by cameras and posted on Instagram. However, phones and cameras are explicitly prohibited inside most onsen and taking pictures of them, even when nobody’s in them, is a no-go. The element of discovery is an important aspect of the onsen experience, so don’t ruin the surprise for others with a photographic spoiler.
Now that you’re ready to soak, here are four lesser-known onsen worth seeking out:
Hirauchi Kaichu, Yakushima
This bare-bones public onsen on the island of Yakushima is built into a pile of rocks on a beach where crashing waves and wind are part of the elemental experience. The onsen is only accessible for two hours before and after low tide and has no attendants, so payment is made by using a wooden honor system box. US$1
Dogo Onsen Honkan, Matsuyama
One of Japan’s oldest onsen is located in the outskirts of Matsuyama in a labyrinthine Meiji-era complex with several baths, tatami mat relaxing rooms, and even an onsen for the imperial family, which you can tour but not soak in. The landmark three-story wooden bathhouse is said to be the inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. US$3.50–$13
Just 90 minutes from the Jikoundani, where Japanese snow monkeys soak in their very own onsen, this ryokan’s onsen is exclusive to overnight guests and divided into three minimalist chambers, each with decreasing amounts of light. The last is nearly pitch black, except for a dramatic crack of light that creates a sensory-deprived “in utero”-style soak. Rooms from US$300 per person including onsen and breakfast.
Nishimuruya Honkan, Kinosaki
Kinosaki, a picturesque 8th-century onsen town fed by the thermal and willow-lined Otani-gawa River, is beloved by weekenders donning yukata and geta and who onsen-hop around the town’s seven historic baths. Nishumuruya Honkan, one of Japan’s best ryokan, offers an excellent private onsen overlooking the lush bamboo forests of the enveloping Tajima mountains. Rooms from US$640 including onsen and meals.