One of the best Japanese experiences is to visit a Japanese bath house. Westerners can feel very lost in Japan, more than anything because we cannot read kanji. A Japanese bath can be tricky but I have plenty of help while trying to determine which out of three pumps, is the body gel. There is no greater example of literally immersing oneself in another culture than going to a Japanese onsen. Here are some Japanese onsen tips for an enjoyable Japanese hot springs experience.
Japanese Onsen Etiquette
These tips will ease your way into the hot waters of a Japanese onsen.
1- Say achii as you slip into the onsen spa
After showering one heads for the hot-pool proper and slips into the hot waters deliberately exhaling a long ‘achii ’ (meaning ‘hot’) which will mark you as an old hand at Japanese onsen culture.
2- Wear a yukata in the Japanese bath area
If you go to a Japanese public bath there will be lockers. 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- It’s ok to wear a shower cap
Don’t forget your little towel and proceed to the shower area in the Japanese onsen absolutely starkers and NO slippers – of any kind.
It is OK to wear a shower cap if you need one.
4- Don’t stare in a Japanese Onsen
Assess the shower situation in the Japanese onsen.
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.
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 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 and pour it over yourself to rinse.
Imagine standing under a waterfall. Smile benignly.
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.
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.
Looking for some places to go in Japan? Have you considered visiting Japan in the winter?
Read this excellent Japan travel guide to help you plan your trip. If you’re going in winter, try Hakuba Ski Resort, which has lots to do besides skiing and some great local Hakuba hotels. Here are some things to do in Takayama too.