Ever since my exposure to sauna culture in Finland, I have been obsessed with experiencing local spa rituals of the various places I visit. Not all countries have spa culture, but plenty of them do and I love seeking it out.
On my recent visit to Japan, I had the opportunity to relax and unwind in the traditional Japanese way — at an onsen. Similar to other spa cultures I have experienced, I loved my time at the onsen and I am sharing all of my tips from the experience with you today!
What is an Onsen?
Onsens are communal Japanese baths and hot springs. There is a specific set of requirements that qualify something as an onsen, but for the most part they consist of gender-separated hot baths, both indoor and outdoor, using natural spring and mineral water. They are most commonly found in the mountains of Japan, especially in Hokkaido, Mt Fuji area and outside of Kyoto, because traditionally they were only heated from volcanic activity.
Onsen Etiquette 101
Similar to other long-held cultural traditions in Japan, onsens have a very specific set of rules and etiquette involved that foreign visitors should prepare for. As I mentioned above, onsens are gender separated. There will be a men’s and women’s area at any onsen. I have never seen a mixed-gender onsen during my time in Japan, so if you go with a spouse or partner of the opposite gender, expect that you will be spending the time apart.
Secondly, onsens is fully nude. Yup, you’re going to be totally naked. No swimsuits or underwear are allowed in the onsen, so you should expect to strip down all the way. While this may be a little uncomfortable at first, you’ll quickly notice that Japanese people are completely unphased by nudity and there is a lot more comfort with body image. There will be small baskets or lockers in the changing room for you to store your belongings.
Thirdly, onsens are a social space but they are also very quiet and peaceful. Families will go to the onsen together to relax and socialize, but it will always be in muted, calm tones. You won’t find lots of loud talking or laughter. The Japanese are very polite about community spaces, so you can expect to be largely left alone if you go by yourself. If you go with friends or a small group, be aware of your voice and how loud you are speaking so that you don’t offend the local patrons.
Cleaning Yourself Before Entering
It is expected that everyone bath themselves before entering the communal onsen pool. Onsens only use fresh mineral water without chlorine or chemicals, so it is very important that people wash off before entering so as not to dirty up the pools. There will be small seated showers, typically around the perimeter of the indoor onsen, where you should fully wash yourself. Shampoo and body wash are typically provided. You will notice that Japanese people are full-on scrubbing and washing at these showers to ensure they are fully clean. Model their behavior and get squeaky clean!
Indoor and Outdoor Onsens
If you watch Japanese people in the onsen, you will see that they shift between the indoor and outdoor onsens in a cycle. Typically they will start in the indoor onsen, which most resembles a steam room, and will then move out to the outdoor onsen, followed by some time out of the water entirely to cool off. They will often drink tea or water in a sitting area before reentering the onsens approximately 10-20 minutes later. It is common to stay at an onsen for an hour or two, but some people will spend nearly half their day at the onsen. The outdoor onsens are typically built into the natural surroundings so you will find boulders, trees, and little waterfalls in the pools. They are really quite beautiful!
When to Visit an Onsen?
Personally, I think onsens are most ideal in the winter because the cold air cools off your head and body as you sit in the hot water of the outdoor onsen, but onsens will be open and available all year round. They are typically open morning through late night, with a closed period for cleaning about 1-3 hours per day. I personally enjoyed going at night a few hours before bed time because I was relaxed and ready to sleep afterwards, but they are also quite nice in the morning as a relaxing way to start your day.