Japanese Onsen Tips

12 things you need to know before visiting an onsen in Japan

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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.  

For more about Japan, read:

Japanese Onsen Tips

So, here are some Japanese onsen tips for an enjoyable Japanese hot springs experience to help 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

onsen in japan 7
Japanese public baths can be a serene experience

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 

onsen in japan
Visiting a Japanese onsen bath is a quintessential experience in Japan.

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

onsen ryokan
If you’re shy, try an onsen ryokan to start with.

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.

Smile benignly.

7- Beware the Japanese hot tub

Japanese hot
Japanese hot tubs are hot!

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

onsen japan
Searching for the best onsen in Japan is a rewarding experience.

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

mixed onsen and private onsen
Most traditional onsens have separate sections for men and women.

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

japanese public bath
A dip in an onsen bath is a wonderful Japanese experience.

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.

Happy bathing!

Whether you’re visiting Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya, you’re sure to find a traditional Japanese Onsen to experience.

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.

Japanese Onsen Tips

Japanese Onsen Tips

Plan Your Trip

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Maria Visconti
As a travel writer and photographer, I owe my present ‘incarnation’ to two authors who –I have recently realised- influenced me greatly: Emilio Salgari and Lobsang Rampa. They shaped my craving for adventure and far away places while growing up in Buenos Aires.