You never forget your first onsen experience.
Mine was called “Spa World“, and it sounded like heaven on earth. Located in downtown Osaka, Spa World was like the Disney World of Japanese bathhouses. With ten floors, it’s one of the largest onsens in the world: it’s open 24 hours, has two elaborately themed floors of baths (one is European, the other Asian), a water park, a food court, a gym and of course a salon and spa. It was a beautiful monster.
Onsens come in all different sizes, from tiny city owned outdoor pools to fancy hotel-adjacent spa centers. The hot water is pumped from mineral springs, heated by the volcanic earth. The mineral content of the water is supposed to promote health and healing as well as relaxation.
Never having been to an onsen before and speaking exactly zero Japanese, I was a bit apprehensive. But I wasn’t about to let that hold me back from the inviting hot water, so I figured I’d reason it out as I went.
And I did… sort of. It wasn’t easy. So here’s my guide to help you navigate your onsen experience more smoothly:
Do: Follow the Crowd
The Japanese have a system for everything, which is kind of great…as long as you know what’s going on. Most onsens, even the big ones as it turns out, don’t have signs in English. Luckily you can usually figure out what’s going on by following the people around you.
Don’t: Bother Bringing a Bathing Suit
It quickly became apparent that the shiny red one-piece I’d carried along wasn’t welcome here. Yup, you will be naked. Luckily almost all onsens are segregated by sex. Once you’re in the locker room you’ll only be seeing your fellow men, or women.
There’s no sense in feeling modest- nudity is an expected non-event and most people treat it like the most natural thing in the world (which I suppose it is). Don’t bother trying to hide under your (tiny) towel, you’ll just look silly. After a while it can actually feel quite liberating to walk around without those pesky clothes.
Do: Get Very, Very Clean
Listen up, because this is the most critical step: onsen users are very concerned with cleanliness, so before you even think about getting near the baths, you need to take a shower. There’s no use doing this at home beforehand- it needs to be in full view of everyone to confirm your clean status. If you try to go in the baths without washing first you will get some serious side-eye and possibly be sent back out.
Some onsens have showerheads; other use small vanity stands with a sink and bucket. Wash thoroughly and use the soap and shampoo. Really scrub yourself down. Once you feel thoroughly cleaned you can pick up your (tiny) towel and head into the baths.
Don’t: Have Tattoos
Exposed tattoos are a non-starter. Body art is not really done in Japan unless you’re a card carrying member of the yakuza (Japanese mafia,) so many onsens will not allow tattoos on bathers. If your tat is small you may be able to cover it with a bandage. If you have a full sleeve, you may want to check ahead with the onsen to see if you’ll be allowed.
Do: Enjoy the Hot Water
Now you can relax and soak it all in. The water can be quite hot so ease in slowly. Leave your (tiny) towel on the edge, don’t let it get wet. If you’re with friends, chatting is okay; yelling, splashing or swimming is generally frowned upon.
The bigger onsens have different types of baths to choose from. Some vary greatly in temperature (if you’re feeling brave take a dip in the cold pool before sinking into the warm- you will tingle all over).
Definitely test out all the different options. Spa World had outdoor Japanese style tubs, indoor Persian baths and even a carbonated bath!
Most onsens will also have a sauna. When you use the sauna make sure you sit on your (tiny) towel- nobody wants to sit where your sweaty butt has been!
Don’t: Shower Post-soak
After soaking up the waters until I felt slightly past-prunish, I jumped back into the shower. No no! A woman told me frantically, gesturing at me to get out. Apparently you’re not supposed to shower before you leave- this is when the minerals soak into your skin.
Do: Take a Nice Nap
With all of the warmth and relaxation you may find yourself getting sleepy. Do not fall asleep in the tub, trust me people will look at you funny. Many of the bigger baths have napping rooms. Get a big drink of water and then get ready for some of the best sleep of your life.
For first time visitors, the strict procedure (and the nakedness) can be intimidating, but don’t miss out on this important and really enjoyable aspect of Japanese culture.
Stephanie is a girl who can’t sit still. Since graduating she has spent her time either roaming the earth or saving up for her next trip, until finally quitting the rat race for good to become a full time writer, blogger and owner of Twenty-Something Travel.