Onsen /ˈɒnsɛn/ n. (In Japan) a hot spring, or a resort that was developed around a hot spring.
Japan is a cluster of islands that is situated in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Rim of Fire. Therefore, there are plenty of natural hot springs from the volcanic activity. Bathing in these hot springs (or onsen) are an integral part of life in Japan as it is the best way to unwind and refresh the mind, body, and spirit. And of course, it’s an excuse to hang out naked in public (excuse the pun).
So after hearing so many good things about onsens in Japan, I decided to finally try one out and I couldn’t have picked a better spot than Atami – a seaside town famous for its natural hot springs. But despite onsens encouraging people to ‘let loose’, there are still a number of rules that you have to abide by – so here is my beginner’s guide to taking a bath in a Japanese onsen.
Step 1: Getting Ready
Before going to an onsen, you should have a big towel and a small towel. The big towel is for drying yourself off at the very end, while the little towel is to accompany you into the onsen. Now some places do offer free towels for you to use, however, it might still be a good idea to bring your own.
If you’re staying at a ryokan (a Japanese-style inn), you can get dressed into a yukata before making your way to the onsen. A yukata is a Japanese-style robe that is similar to a kimono, but made of a thinner material. Yukata are common in ryokans and are often found folded up in your room. You should still wear some clothes under the yukata as you don’t want things flopping out when you’re waltzing around the inn.
Step 2: Get Naked
Before going into the dressing room in front of the onsen, make sure that you take the correct door. Most onsens are separated for men and women, and you don’t want to accidentally walk in on the wrong people (or do you….?).
Once in the dressing room, you should strip down naked. That’s right, you have to be starkers in an onsen – no bathing suits allowed! Now this may intimidate you, but remember, everyone there is naked and no one is looking nor judging you. And on the plus side, there’s nothing better than hanging free!
Note: Tattoos are prohibited in most onsens as they are seen as a sign of the Yakuza (mafia) in Japan. Therefore, if you have a tattoo (no matter how small), you should make sure that you cover it up with a waterproof bandage!
Step 3: Wash Yourself
After undressing, you should make your way into the onsen area with your small towel. If you like, you can put the small towel over your privates if you really don’t like the feeling of things hanging out.
You then make your way over to the shower heads on the wall. This is where you wash your body with soap and shampoo so that you are already mostly clean for the bath – you don’t want everyone to be sitting in your filth, do you?
Note: It is common in Japan to shower sitting down, so of course there are also plenty of stools for you to use. In many onsens they actually discourage standing while showering so that you don’t accidentally splash your neighbours.
Step 4: Take a Dip
Once you’re cleaned and rinsed of soap, you can then wade into the hot spring. But be careful – it could be hotter than you’re expecting. So it’s best to test the water and get in slowly. You can then rest and relax as you take in the refreshing feel of the hot water. Feel free to also speak to the other people in the onsen – this is the one area of Japanese life where you are encouraged to be more open.
In fact, the Japanese have a concept called Hadaka no Tsukiai (裸の付き合い) or – “naked communication” – where the removal of clothes is a metaphor for the removal of social barriers and thus better communication with others. So don’t be surprised if some people decide to talk to you in the hot spring. Companies even sometimes organise retreats to ryokan onsens in order to improve communication and interpersonal relationships.
Note: Do not, I repeat, do not put your small towel into the onsen. Rather fold it up and place it on your head. This is because it is seen as highly rude and unclean. Also, because the onsen is meant to be for relaxing, you shouldn’t start swimming lengths of the hot spring.
Step 5: Rinse and Dry
Once you feel clean and refreshed, it’s time to get out of the onsen. But don’t leave in such a hurry, you can’t be drippin’ all over the dressing room floor. So once you get out of the hot spring, you should use your small towel to dry yourself off. Even if the towel is damp from all the steam, that’s okay – it’s only meant to dry you enough to stop the dripping.
While most onsen discourage rinsing yourself after your bath (as it washes away many of the beneficial minerals), some places do suggest that you in fact do this. For example, in Atami, rinsing yourself off is done as the hot spring water is straight from the ocean and therefore salty. So be aware of the rules and recommendations when visiting your local onsen.
Note: Be careful not to stay in the onsen too long. The water is hot and steamy and it’s not healthy if you start to feel faint. Remember, this is not a test of endurance, it’s a way for relaxing.
Step 6: Pamper Yourself
After doing a cursory dry of your body, you can make your way back into the dressing room where you can use your nice fluffy big towel and pull on your yukata. In some dressing rooms, there are complimentary hair products and hair dryers so that you can thoroughly pamper yourself before leaving.
Overall, onsens are a fantastic way to relax in Japan and should of course be on the top of your to-do list if you want to experience traditional and local culture. And don’t be intimidated by the nakedness, just jump right in and you won’t regret it!