Introduction to Visiting Onsen in Japan

 

What is an Onsen?

The word ‘onsen’ is often used to mean a naturally occurring hot spring source, but can also refer to baths filled with onsen water. The word ‘onsen’ also features in the names of hot spring resort towns and villages. For example, ‘Higashiyama Onsen’ refers both to the hot spring source in the area, and is also the name of the town. This can be a little confusing when you first come to Japan!

Japan is said to have around 2500 hot spring resorts, and approximately 130 of these are in Fukushima Prefecture! Usually onsen that people visit in Japan will be around 38-42°C but they can get much, much hotter! Onsen resorts have been popular places to stay when travelling far from home for centuries, and are loved by both Japanese guests and those from abroad.Iwase Yumoto Onsen (2)

Relaxing, having some ‘me time’, socialising with friends and family, for health purposes – there are many reasons that people go to onsen!

Some people are put off from bathing in onsen because of feeling nervous about being naked in front of stranger or – even worse – someone you know. I’m very used to onsen culture now, but I understand this fear.

That being said, being naked in front of strangers at onsen is something so natural for Japanese people that you really don’t need to worry about being stared at.

If you’re not convinced, I explained in my blog post last week about the blessing that is Kashikiriburo (reserved private baths) so please have a look at that if you’re interested.

In this post I’d like to provide information about a variety of ways to experience onsen.

First of all, let’s consider places where visitors can enjoy onsen, which can be split into 3 categories:

 

Places to Try Out Onsen

1 Public foot-baths Open every day in public spaces. Anybody can use these foot-baths to warm their feet for free.
2 Public Baths Public baths are buildings containing baths supplied with onsen hot spring water. Public baths are separated by gender. There is usually a small cost to go to the public bath, and a separate cost if you’d like to buy a small body towel. Public baths tend to cost between 200 yen to 500 yen
3 Accommodation facilities Hotels, ryokan and other accommodation facilities often include onsen-sourced baths that their guests can enjoy.

 

This 3rd category tends to be split into ryokan/hotels that offer daytime access to customers, even those who don’t stay the night, and those that only let their overnight guests use their onsen. Depending on the size of the facility, a day visit to a ryokan’s onsen can cost between 700 yen and 2000 yen. On the other hand, it usually doesn’t cost any money for overnight guests to bathe in shared baths with other guests.

The way to use these onsen depends on which of the above categories that onsen facility that you’re visiting belongs to. See below for more info!

 

 How to Use Onsen

1 Public foot-baths
  1. Before you go, remember to take a towel.
  2. Once you’ve arrived, take off your shoes and socks and dip your feet into the foot-bath.
  3. Many public foot-baths prefer for people not to eat or drink while using the foot-bath (in order to keep them as clean as possible).
2 Public baths
  1. Before you go, if you have a towel, take it with you.
  2. If not, buy a towel when you arrive.
  3. Pay for entrance at the reception.
  4. Enter the public bath facility, go to the relevant changing room, and take off your clothes. Put all clothes / accessories in the basket / lockers provided.
  5. If there are showers for rinsing your body before you get in, take a shower.
  6. If not, just splash some onsen water from the bath onto your body to help acclimatize it to the hot water.
  7. Then step into the bath, slowly submerging yourself into the water.
3 Accommodation Facilities If you’re visiting during the day, and are not staying the night:

  1. Tell reception that you want to do higaeri onsen (day-visit onsen).
  2. Borrow a towel if you need one (will likely cost money).
  3. The staff at reception should lead you to the changing rooms.
  4. Take your clothes of and them together with your belongings in a locker.
  5. Wash yourself in the showers provided, then splash the warm water on yourself and get in the bath.

If you stay in the ryokan or hotel:

  1. There should be towels for use for onsen visits in your guest room.
  2. Check with reception about the times that the baths are available during the day/evening (Often the same bath will be available for women during specific hours, and to men at different timeslots)
  3. Grab your towels from your room and walk to the onsen.
  4. Wash yourself in the showers provided, then splash the warm water on yourself and get in the bath.

When you go to an onsen for the first time, you might see lots of different onsen-related words and hear new terms, especially if you’re at a ryokan. Here’s a list of common terms and their meanings.

 

Basic Terms

お風呂 Ofuro Bath
共同浴場 Kyodo Yokujo Public Bath
混浴風呂 Konyokuburo Mixed-gender bath
貸切風呂 Kashikiriburo Reserved Private Bath
温泉源 Onsen-gen Onsen source

Note: Unless it specifically says “Konyokuburo”, it’s pretty safe to assume that the ryokan hotel’s onsen will be gender separated. By the way, the kanji for woman is 女 and the kanji for man is 男, so follow these signs and find the right bath!

Types of Bath

Okudake onsen (1)

From Sodium bicarbonate springs and sulphate springs to tea baths and wine baths, there are many types of onsen baths, and lots of people use them for the healing properties of their water.

Many onsen baths have medicinal qualities thought to help with a range of health issues including bad blood circulation, eczema and muscle soreness. Onsen water often comes in lots of consistencies and colours, depending on what minerals or properties they contain!

Here are some words that might come in handy at the onsen:

掛け湯 Kakeyu Onsen water to splash over your body before you get in the bath
ぬる湯 Nuruyu Warm water
内風呂 Uchiburo Inside bath
外風呂 Sotoburo Outside bath
露天風呂 Rotenburo Open-air bath
客室露天風呂 Kyakushitsu Rotenburo Open-air bath attached to guest room
岩風呂 Iwaburo Stone bath

urabandai-winter-onsen

Onsen manners

Onsen manners are pretty easy for foot-baths (don’t touch anyone else’s feet with your feet and don’t eat / drink while using the foot-bath.)

But figuring out the manners for public baths and ryokan / hotels etc can be a little difficult. Here’s a simple list of some dos and don’ts for onsen visits:

Dos and Don’ts

Dos

  • Do place all your valuables in a locker if provided (or leave them in your room if you’re staying the night)
  • Do take off all your clothes before moving from the changing rooms to the wash room
  • Do cover your tattoos with plasters or something similar (or make use of private reserved baths).
  • Do feel free to try out the different selections of shampoo, conditioner etc on offer at ryokan / hotels
  • Do wash off all the soap from your body before entering the bath.
  • Do splash yourself with kakeyu water from the onsen with the provided buckets before stepping in.
  • Do sit out of the bath for a little while if you feel quite hot.
  • Do get out of the bath if you feel extremely hot, if your face is red and/or you feel palpitations (this means you’ve been in the bath too long).
  • Do rinse yourself after bathing in an onsen if the water is acidic and/or you have sensitive skin.
  • Do dry yourself off lightly with a towel before walking back into the changing rooms.

 

 

Don’ts

  • Don’t get in the bath if you’re drunk or dehydrated!
  • Don’t feel embarrassed! Onsen is part of Japanese culture and no one is going to be judging your body
  • Don’t stand up while showering
  • Don’t get your hair in the onsen water
  • Don’t be shy – say hello to the people you’re bathing with in the bath!
  • Don’t stay in the bath too long!
  • Don’t go in the onsen baths more than 3 times in 1 day.
  • Don’t get out of the bath too quickly when you get out. Getting out slowly will help your body acclimatise to the temperature change.
  • Don’t worry too much about rinsing yourself after bathing if your skin doesn’t tend to be sensitive. Many types of onsen water include minerals that are good for your skin, so lots of people prefer showering later in the day.
  • Don’t forget to drink lots of water after re-entering the changing rooms!
  • Don’t forget to hand your towels back before you leave!

Remember to check with your doctor before going to onsen if you have a medical condition (especially one related to cardiovascular problems) and/or if you are pregnant, just to be safe.

As soon as I started writing this, I realised there is a lot more to writing about regarding onsen then I previously thought!

I hope this blog post has been helpful. Let me know if there’s anything I forgot.

 

What did you think about this post?

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4 thoughts on “Introduction to Visiting Onsen in Japan

  1. What are the health benefits of Onsen bath? other than relaxation and novelty.
    Is it therapeutic for arthritis?

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    1. There are thought to be a number of health benefits. For example:
      – Pain relief from muscle pain & arthritis
      – Improved blood circulation
      – Relaxation & getting good quality sleep afterwards
      – Relieves symptoms / can help improve certain skin conditions like eczema

      Like

  2. Very thorough and informative! I personally tend to pull the “use public baths when others are least likely to be in there” move, so my exposure to bathing with strangers (ha, ha) has been minimal. That said, though, the water is so soothing and it really is an experience worth having.

    Like

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