An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, with the term also extending to cover the bathing facilities and traditional inns frequently placed and enjoyed around a hot spring. As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered throughout all of its major islands. Onsen come in many types and shapes, including outdoor and indoor baths. Onsen baths may be either publicly run by a municipality or privately, often as part of a hotel, ryokan, or bed and breakfast. Let’s take a look at some onsen etiquette and how you can kick back and relax in one of Japan’s natural hot springs.
One thing to note about onsen if you haven’t encountered them before is the dress code. Sometimes being the factor that puts individuals off visiting onsen can be the no swimwear policy. You may be anxious at first, but once you have bared all, it doesn’t take long to get used to it. For those who fancy something more private, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached and in some inns, public baths are available for private use upon request. Another onsen alternative is to visit a bath that has predominantly milky water, meaning visibility is limited.
Cleanliness is a large part of the Japanese onsen experience. The idea of Western practices of washing yourself in a bath is seen as unhygienic in the eyes of the Japanese. When visiting a communal sento or onsen it’s important to keep the water as clean as possible, which means showering before entering the spring.
Every onsen in Japan has a row of showers that go around the outside of the bath. Soaps, shampoos, and conditioners are usually provided, though you can also bring your own if you choose. It’s key to remember that you are expected to sit down using one of the stools provided whilst you wash; it’s considered bad manners to stand whilst you wash, as you could splash someone next to you. It’s also important to ensure that you rinse thoroughly to ensure that no soap enters the bathwater. Although not as important, locals sometimes rinse themselves under the shower after soaking in the onsen or if they are returning from a sauna or steam room.
Entering the water
To ensure that the onsen is as clean as possible, it’s important to know that if you have long hair, you will be required to tie it up or wrap it in a small towel. Although you are encouraged to wash your hair in the shower beforehand, this is to maintain the cleanliness of the onsen by ensuring that hair doesn’t get into the water. Even if your hair is short, you are advised against putting your head under the water to avoid being exposed to any bacteria that could cause infection.
At any onsen in Japan, you will be given a small and a large towel, alternatively, there will be a choice to rent or sometimes you can bring your own. Large towels are used for drying yourself and should be kept in the changing room, whilst the small towel is used for washing and can be taken into the communal bathing area. You can even take your small towel into the bath with you, but you mustn’t let it enter the water, so many guests keep their small towels on their head whilst relaxing in the onsen.
Tattoos can be seen as something of a taboo in Japan, which means that most onsen across the country has a ban on tattoos. If you have an unnoticeable or small tattoo, you may be able to enter the onsen if you cover it with a plaster or bandage. If you have larger tattoos that are difficult to cover, you may not be allowed to enter. However, if you really wanted to try out these hot springs, you could visit ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use.
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