Onsen Etiquette: Do’s, Don’ts & Benefits
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. On this page you will find the following information:
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. Importantly, if you have one ore more tattoos, you should check whether you are allowed into an onsen before undressing and entering the water – see ‘Onsen & Tattoos’ below for information about why this can be an issue and finding a tattoo-friendly hot spring. This page is intended to be read in combination with our ‘Onsen in Japan’ main page.
HOW CAN I IDENTIFY AN ONSEN?
There are several words, symbols and characters to look-out for. Literally translating to ‘hot water’ and ‘spring’, the characters for ‘onsen’ are 温泉 or can simply be displayed as 湯 or the simpler hiragana character of ゆ – both pronounced ‘yu’. One or more of these will usually be visible on the outside of the building, often printed on the ‘noren’, textile hanging in front of the entrance. Most onsen will also use this symbol to identify themselves on signs and maps:
Inside the onsen itself, the mens bath will be identified with the character for male – 男 – or ‘otoko’, and female – 女 – or ‘onna’.
It’s worth noting that if you are staying at an onsen hotel or guesthouse overnight, the owners will often switch the baths at some time during the day, designating different baths to men and women respectively. For that reason, it’s important to always pay attention to which bath you should be entering as the one you entered last night might no longer be the one you should in the morning. Just keep an eye-out for the characters outside the bath which will tell you which one to enter.
THE BASIC RULES OF ONSEN
It can be a little intimidating entering an onsen for the first-time. But don’t worry. You’ll quickly get the hang of it and as long as you follow these basics rules, you’ll be totally fine:
— shower thoroughly before you enter the onsen
— 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)
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.
By following those basic rules you’ll blend right in. For visitors wanting a little more information of exactly how to go about it, let’s now consider how to:
ENTERING AN ONSEN: STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS
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. For more information about this, see ‘Onsen & Tattoos’ below. 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 sulfuric – 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.
TIPS TO HELP YOU RELAX
Enjoying an onsen is something of a must-do activity while in Japan. But if you’re still nervous about doing so, the following points might help you relax into:
— 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.
— 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.
ONSEN & TATTOOS
For international visitors, rules regarding tattoos and onsen can be confusing. Whether you can enter an onsen when sporting some ink is a tricky question to answer. In order to answer it in a useful way, a little background to why tattoos are an issue is worth considering. In the past and for many years, tattoos were used to brand criminals in Japan. The patterns and symbols used would reflect the nature and place of the crime and therefore, in the eyes of law-abiding citizens, tattoos identified criminal and dangerous individuals. From the late-18th century onward, criminals embraced this practice as their own and began to use elaborate decorative patterns as a mark of pride. As a result, the practice of tattooing was outlawed in Japan and only practiced by the criminal underground, most notoriously, the yakuza (Japanese mafia).
In a society based on conformity, displaying a tattoo is a strong statement against what is considered good and proper behaviour. Though social attitudes are beginning to change, with an increasing number of young Japanese having tattoos and many foreigners heavily inked, in the eyes of many Japanese tattoos maintain a negative stigma. This is most pronounced with the older generation who feel uncomfortable at the sight of a tattoo – and this is what matters to onsen owners. While an owner may be comfortable admitting guests with tattoos – recent surveys reflect an increasing number of whom are happy to do so – many are thinking of the comfort of their older guests when refusing entry to guests with tattoos. They worry they their guests, particularly their elderly regulars, will be uncomfortable therefore they decline entry to anyone with a tattoo.
FINDING A TATTOO-FRIENDLY ONSEN
The positive news is that there are plenty of onsens you can enter! The bad news is they can be hard to identify without just showing-up and trying your luck. The best advice is to check first, by phone or in person, before trying to enter bath. A phone call – best made in Japanese – to enquire first is the best option. Failing that, you can ask at the onsen reception. Some will clearly advertise a ban on tattoos while others assume it is simply known, so even if there is no sign refusing entry, always ask first to avoid an awkward interaction later on. Another option is to cover your tattoos. While smaller tattoos may go unnoticed or ignored (if they are indeed small), larger ones will not. For small and mid-sized tattoos, it’s best to cover them with bandages, available for sale in pharmacies and some convenience stores. Sleeves, leg, back and other large tattoos that are impossible to cover are the biggest problem. If you are heavily inked you will need to check with the owner before entering. If they decline entry, don’t take it personally. It’s a cultural norm and no offence is intended. Rest assured you will find plenty that will let you in.
THE MANY BENEFITS OF ONSEN
Many cultures have long recognised the health benefits of soaking in hot and mineral springs. From the Romans and their famous baths, to present-day Scandinavia and many other examples, people have been seeking-out natural hot and mineral springs for as long as we have records. Perhaps more than any other country, Japan has always acknowledged the many – some known and some presumed – benefits of regularly making use of its many naturally-occurring hot springs. Originally used for medicinal purposes, many people now visit onsen purely for relaxation with the curative properties of specific hot springs also still attracting many visitors.
Common Types of Water
‘Balneotherapy’ is the study of the health benefits of bathing in natural hot springs and mineral spas. Proponents of this study investigate the use of both hot and cold water, along with massage, relaxation and stimulation using water, and the benefits of mineral rich spas including silica, sulfur, radium and other properties. In theory, these minerals and other elements penetrate the body, promoting hormone secretion. When you enter an onsen, the sympathetic nerve becomes predominant, blood pressure rises, heart rate goes up and blood sugar increases. To counter-act this, the parasympathetic nerve is activated and in restoring equilibrium to the body, it is claimed to have a restorative and curative effect. Japanese have long sought-out hot springs for this reason. There are many types of water with specific (claimed) benefits including:
— tanzyun-sen (simple water): the most common type of onsen, the water has a balanced mineral content with no predominant element, colour or odour. Many onsen fall under this classification and as such, there is a huge diversity in their exact properties and benefits. Simple water is well-suited to all ages, from young to old. Gero Onsen in Gifu is known for its tanzyun-sen.
— sansei-sen (acidic water): has a strong bacterial effect and often used for skin treatment including healing scars and chronic skin conditions. Acidic water results from a mixture of volcanic gas and ground water and is said to remove old skin. However some people find he affect too strong and it’s a good idea to wash-off the water after bathing. Whatever you do, do not drink it. Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma is one of Japan’s most renowned towns for sansei-sen.
— bijin-no-yu (alkaline water): known as the ‘onsen of beautiful ladies’, alkaline water feels thick and silky. It exfoliates the skin, making it smooth and removing spots, hence its association with beauty and anti-ageing. Hirugami Onsen in Nagano is famous for its bijin-no-yu.
— iou-sen (sulfuric water): often carries a strong sulfuric smell and colour in the water making it easy to identify. The gas clears the throat and counteracts ailments including bronchitis. The water is said to open blood vessels and therefore helps protect against heart disease, arteriosclerosis and other skin diseases. The milky white water of Manza Onsen in Gunma is one of Japan’s best destinations to try iou-sen.
— gantetsu-sen (iron water): is clear in colour but changes to red/brown once exposed to oxygen and the iron is oxidized. It is easy to recognise as there is a smell of rust and a bitter, metallic taste. The iron content means the water treats anemia and menopausal or menstruation disorders. These positive affects for women mean that it is also referred to as ‘fujin-no-yu’ or ‘water of women’. Said to also aid circulation and blood health, the water is often drunk in small amounts. Visitors to Shibu Onsen in Nagano can try gantetsu-sen – both soaking and drinking it.
— tansan-sen (carbonated water): looks like normal water but small bubbles stick to your skin. Said to improve circulation quicker than normal water and is good for detoxing. Tansen-sen is rare and hard to find.
For recommendations as to where to find some the region’s best onsens, including those listed above, see ‘Best Onsen Towns in Nagano & Central Japan’ below. Finally, a world about ‘Hot Water Flowers’…
In some onsen you might notice particles floating in the water. Often white and fluffy, this can be off-putting the first time you encounter it as people understandably assume the water is not clean. Don’t be alarmed. What you are experiencing is called ‘yu-no-hana’ or ‘hot water flowers’, naturally occurring sediments floating in the water. Yu-no-hana come from deep inside the Earth, and float to the surface in the thermal water. They are clean, meant to be there, and if you see a lot of them, the onsen you are enjoying is likely to be famous for them.
BEST ONSEN TOWNS IN NAGANO & CENTRAL JAPAN
Our home region of Nagano and Central Japan is home to some of the country’s most historic and best onsen towns. Our ’20 Best Onsen Towns in Nagano & Central Japan’ page tells you where to find them and why you should visit – so hop to it and enjoy the best that the region has to offer.
BOOK AN ONSEN GUESTHOUSE IN NAGANO
Based in Nagano and operating all year round, we are the region’s No.1-rated tour and charter operator. As a registered travel agent, we can arrange accommodation at the best onsen guesthouses in Nagano and Central Japan while also offering a full suite of services including tours, transport, ski packages and more! Our ‘Book an Onsen Guesthouse in Nagano’ page is a great place to start when looking for recommendations of where to stay once you’re here. We hope to see you soon in Nagano!