How to Use an Onsen: Do’s & Dont’s
For many Japanese, onsen is a regular (if not daily) activity, something they engage in from infancy and throughout their lives. Yet for international visitors, entering and using an onsen can be intimidating, especially on their first visit.
Rest assured it’s nothing to worry about. While there is certainly an onsen etiquette, it is not as strict as many imagine rather just a few basic rules to ensure the comfort and enjoyment of guests and maintain the cleanliness of the hot spring.
Many onsen refuse entry to guests with tattoos. There are historical reasons for this but attitudes are also changing. Guests with tattoos should always check first before entering to avoid any awkward interactions once in the onsen. Our ‘Find a Tattoo-friendly Onsen in Nagano‘ page provides some useful information for guests with tattoos.
We hope the following STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS are of assistance:
– most importantly, start by entering the correct onsen! While many will use the English words for men’s and women’s, others may only display the ‘kanji’ character. For men, look for 男 (‘otoko’ meaning male) and for women, look for 女 (‘onna’ meaning female)
– when passing from the hotel into the onsen, take off your shoes and leave them at the entrance or inside a shoebox
– there will usually be a change room with lockers. Remove all clothes – yes, all clothes – and place your clothing and large towel in a locker or basket
– you are now ready to enter the onsen. The only things you can take with you is your small towel and locker key (if required).
– it’s now time to wash. Sit on a stool and thoroughly wash your body and if you want, also wash your hair. Guests with long hair should tie it so it doesn’t enter the water
– wash bowls are usually on-hand to allow you to throw water over yourself. Once done, make sure you are clean of any soap and place everything back as you found it
– you can now enter the bath and ensure nothing above your neck is below the water surface
– your towel should not enter the water but instead can be placed to the side of the bath or atop of your head, as long as it’s out of the water
– when leaving the onsen, some people choose to wash themselves down again with the shower – especially if the water is acidic or sulphuric – but there’s no requirement to do so
– as you leave and re-enter the change room, ensure you wipe yourself down as best as possible to avoid creating a mess in the change room.
This will quickly become second-nature and you’ll be able to relax fully into the experience.
To make it easier, just follow these SIMPLE RULES and you’ll be fine:
– never wash yourself in the onsen water
– do not wear any clothing into the onsen water (unless you are told it’s acceptable)
– do not put anything in the onsen water
– do not splash or cause a disturbance
– don’t speak loudly or yell
– never take alcohol into the onsen (unless you are told it’s acceptable)
TIPS TO HELP YOU RELAX and enjoy the experience:
– don’t feel embarrassed or nervous about being undressed. It’s totally natural for Japanese
– if you feel uncomfortable, you can use your small towel to discretely cover yourself (but remember, don’t let it enter the water)
– if you have a tattoo, check that the onsen is happy to allow you in and/or if they require you to cover your ink – please see our ‘Find a Tattoo-friendly Onsen in Nagano‘ page for further information
– if your towel comes in contact or falls into the water by accident, don’t panic. Just wring-out the towel to the side of the pool and place it safely away from edge
– although rare, some onsen may allow you to take alcohol inside. Even if allowed, we recommend that you don’t drink while in onsen. The combination of heated water, steam and alcohol can lead you to dehydrate easily and feel sick quickly
Finally, for parents taking children into an onsen:
– babies, infants and young children can enter either onsen with their parent, regardless of gender. A good rule of thumb is that while the child is comfortable to do so, it’s appropriate for them to enter either onsen. Children will naturally let their parents know when they aren’t comfortable and want to enter the onsen assigned to them
– onsens are not pools and children should not be allowed to run, splash or yell. Please ensure they do not for their own safety and comfort of other guests.