One of the best Japanese experiences is to visit a Japanese bathhouse but if you’re not used to public baths, it’s easy to feel very lost in Japan, more than anything because we cannot read kanji. Your first time in a Japanese bath can be tricky but don’t be discouraged as there is no greater example of literally immersing oneself in another culture than going to a Japanese onsen.
It doesn’t matter which part of Japan you’re visiting, experiencing a Japanese Onsen should be part of your Japan itinerary.
Onsens are open all year round, however, the experience is especially lovely during winter in Japan.
Right across the country are hot springs that have become recognised landmarks in Japan, making soaking in a traditional Japanese Onsen one of the best things to experience in Japan if you want to immerse yourself in the culture.
- Japanese Onsen Tips
- 1- Say achii as you slip into the onsen spa
- 2- Wear a yukata in the Japanese bath area
- 3- Don’t wear any clothing except a shower cap
- 4- Don’t stare
- 5- Use the bucket
- 6- Smile while you scrub
- 7- Beware the Japanese hot tub
- 8- The towel goes on your head
- 9- Relax and enjoy
- 10- Watch your blood pressure
- 11- Shower before not after
- 12- Don’t sweat the small stuff
Japanese Onsen Tips
So, here are some Japanese onsen tips for an enjoyable Japanese hot springs experience to hel you ease your way into the hot waters of a Japanese onsen.
1- Say achii as you slip into the onsen spa
After showering, head for the hot-pool and slip into the hot waters while deliberately exhaling a long ‘achii ’ (meaning ‘hot’).
This will mark you as an old hand at Japanese onsen culture as well as put you and your fellow bathers at ease.
2- Wear a yukata in the Japanese bath area
If you go to a Japanese public bath there will be lockers, so undress and store everything away.
If you are at a ryokan you would have been issued with a yukata (cotton kimono), belt and towel.
Wear the yukata to the bath area, undress in the changing room, leave your yukata and belt in the baskets provided.
3- Don’t wear any clothing except a shower cap
Don’t forget your little towel and proceed to the shower area in the Japanese onsen absolutely starkers.
Do not wear a swimsuit or slippers of any kind.
You might think it’s strange but it’s perfectly OK to wear a shower cap if you need one.
4- Don’t stare
Assess the shower situation in the Japanese onsen and if all spaces are taken, don’t stand there watching like a hawk – fascinating as it may be!
Retreat to the ante-chamber and check again in a couple of minutes.
The snow monkeys love to bath in natural hot springs too, so, if you’re a wildlife lover head to see the snow monkeys of Jigokudani but if you’re not visiting in winter, a good place to see them is Arashiyama Monkey Park.
5- Use the bucket
Take one of the low stools and a bucket (look in the corners as extra ones might be stored there).
I know you don’t need them, but you have to enter the spirit of the place.
Body gel and shampoo are provided everywhere but not all Japanese onsen baths have conditioner.
6- Smile while you scrub
Place a stool in front of a free shower and sit down.
Identify which pump is soap and which is shampoo (someone will be willing to help) and begin scrubbing, shampooing.
Fill the bucket with water, pour it over yourself to rinse and imagine standing under a waterfall.
7- Beware the Japanese hot tub
There might be just the one biggish bathtub or several big pools, indoors, outdoors or both.
They are supposed to be at different temperatures, but take it from me and err on the side of caution.
As a rule, they are all extremely hot!
8- The towel goes on your head
Place your precious little towel on your head – or dry place if you can find one – and slowly lower yourself into the water.
Bomb-diving, splashing, screaming, are not well seen by the locals.
Adopt a blissful expression and try (if you dare) exhaling a long, protracted ‘achii ’ to impress present company in the Japanese onsen. Enjoy.
9- Relax and enjoy
Take it all in and relax.
Some places are utilitarian but others have pools in manicured gardens strategically positioned so you can bathe under a full moon or under a maple tree or facing an aesthetically pleasing view.
10- Watch your blood pressure
Do not underestimate the effects of soaking in hot water.
It considerably lowers your blood pressure and can make you dizzy and unsteady when you come out.
If you want to stay longer, cool off a little by sitting at the edge and then re-dip.
11- Shower before not after
If you are bathing in pools fed by mineral springs it is recommended you do not rinse after your time soaking.
If however, in the name of hygiene, you desire to rinse off other people’s dead skin cells from your body, you are welcome to shower again.
The pros actually shower first, soak for a while and after their pores are opened, go back to the shower area and scrub vigorously.
Then they rinse and go back for a blissful final soak in the Japanese onsen.
12- Don’t sweat the small stuff
It requires some skill to actually dry your hair and your body with one little tea towel provided by public onsen but it can be done. Most places provide hair-dryers.
So, make sure to allocate some time to soak in a bath like a local.
This excellent Japan travel guide to help you plan your trip.