The Japanese love taking a bath – I am from Japan, so I know this more than anyone! Considered unusual and strange by many foreign visitors to Japan, the custom of public onsen bathing has been central to Japanese culture for centuries. Please enjoy my Beginner’s Guide to Japan’s Onsen Culture, where hopefully, I can make you feel more at ease so you too can experience this memorable pastime!
WHAT IS ONSEN?
Onsen are hot springs. As a volcanic country, Japan has thousands of onsen everywhere. Onsen water contains minerals, which are thought to have physical and health benefits. Onsen have been traditionally used for public bathing place since the 14th century. Nowadays, there are many varieties, indoors and outdoors, gender separated and mixed, natural and developed.
Here are my top tips for first-time onsen visitors:
ENJOY THE UNIQUE JAPANESE CULTURE (and etiquette)
- Nothing to wear
At some onsen or gender-mixed onsen, you may be able to wear swimsuits during bathing. However, normally, you are only permitted to wear your birthday suit!
- Wash and rinse your hair and body first
You are expected to wash your hair and body before bathing to keep the cleanliness of onsen water.
- Bring a towel
Many people bring a small towel during bathing for tying their long hair and wiping their bodies after getting out and showing modesty in the walking area.
- Tattoos are normally not allowed in onsen
The reason for the tattoo ban is to keep out Yakuza. If you have a tattoo, you can cover it with a small towel. If your tattoo can’t be covered, you can find some onsen which are tattoo friendly or book a private onsen room.
ENJOY THE SEASONS
Each season has its own appeal, but the best season for onsen is winter. Onsen sometimes have an open-air style. The hot mineral water combined with the cold air makes you more relaxed. In spring, you can enjoy onsen with the beautiful cherry blossoms blooming (hanami), and with the richly coloured leaves in autumn.
ENJOY a drink
Following your soak, enjoy a cold drink, milk, coffee, or fruit milk. Some onsen places have vending machines near the entrance. It makes you feel just that bit more refreshed… if that is possible!
If you are over 20 years old, you can drink alcohol, especially Nihon-Shu, during or after bathing. The combination is definitely amazing, but it can be dangerous if you drink too much. Just be careful if you enjoy both onsen and alcohol at the same time.
ENJOY MANY KINDS OF ONSEN
Onsen have several different styles. One of them, Ashiyu, is the easiest way to enjoy Japan’s onsen culture.
Many Ashiyu are located in train stations, rest areas, or parks in onsen towns. The difference of Ashiyu from traditional onsen is that people don’t have to remove all their clothes, just shoes and socks. Ashiyu is the place where people bathe only their feet and legs up to the knees. However, Ashiyu can warm the entire body because the main blood vessels run through their legs.
So, how are you feeling about onsen now? Less nervous and ready to enjoy the relaxation and health benefits? I can assure you, onsen are addictive and once you have tried it once, you will be back time and time again.
With thanks to our guest Japan blogger Kano Kitajima