While it may seem daunting at first to strip off with a bunch of strangers, the experience of bathing in one of Japan’s many hot springs is not to be missed. If you’ve held back for fear of making a faux pas, or whether you’d just like a refresher on bathing etiquette, this short guide is for you. Underlying onsen protocol in Japan is respect for cleanliness and consideration for fellow bathers. The following tips are based on these principles and once you know them, I hope you will have the confidence to dip your toes a little deeper into the world of onsen. Besides, you will likely find other bathers to be friendly and understanding, or too absorbed in their own relaxation to pay you much attention.
When you enter the facility, take your shoes off at the entrance. You will often find lockers or racks to store them.
Having paid, head to the changing rooms, which will be indicated by hanging curtains. Look out for the characters ゆ or 湯, which means hot water (and, by extension, “bath”). Now, to head left or right, that is the question. In this case, it helps to recognize the kanji characters, with 女 marked for women, and 男 for men, although you should also be able to tell them apart by color— generally red curtains for women and blue or black for men.
Remove all your clothes and place them in the lockers or baskets. Leave your larger bath towel here as you will use it to dry yourself after bathing. Bring a smaller hand towel into the bathing area which you can use when washing. These are often provided if you are staying at the facility but typically can be purchased or rented at the entrance if not. You can hold the little towel in front of your body for modesty if you wish, but this is a matter of personal preference.
TIP: Go to the bathroom before you leave the changing room as you are unlikely to find one in the bathing area.
Before you enter the bath, make sure to thoroughly wash yourself. In most onsen, you will find a row of showers lining the walls of the bathing area, along with low stools and buckets. Showers are taken while seated on a stool and the buckets can be used to gather water for rinsing yourself and anything you have used. There will often be soap, shampoo, and conditioner for you to use at the station. Perch yourself at one of the showers and wash thoroughly—you can use your small towel to help scrub yourself squeaky clean. Finally, rinse both yourself, your stool, bucket, shower area, and your towel. Goodbye suds. If you have brought your own amenities, there are often baskets you can store them in.
At last, it’s time to bathe! Just keep in mind this general rule—keep the bathwater clean and bring nothing in with you. This means placing your small towel either beside the bath or atop your head. Just make sure to never put it in the water. Similarly, for those of you with long hair, tie it up so that it doesn’t touch the bath while you’re soaking. Out of consideration for your fellow bathers, avoid swimming, splashing, or speaking loudly—this is a peaceful space. Bathers who look immersed in silent contemplation will probably appreciate being left alone, while you’ll find others who chat with their companions or who may even reach out to talk to you. With that in mind, now it’s time to relax and let the waters work their magic.
TIP: Listen to your body and don’t push yourself to stay in beyond your comfort. If you get too hot, change to a cooler bath or sit on the edge with just your feet and legs submerged.
When you’re ready to leave the bath area, dry off your body as much as possible with the help of your small towel. You can then fully dry yourself with the larger towel you have left in the changing room. If the facility provides hair dryers or cosmetic products, you can make use of these once you are dressed. Remember to stay hydrated and look out for a water fountain in the changing area! Once you have left the changing room, you will likely find a drink vending machine and these are often stocked with milk. Unless you’re lactose intolerant, why not partake in this aspect of onsen culture and enjoy a glass bottle of milk in the lounge area?
FYI: Interestingly enough, plain and coffee-flavored milk have long been a popular post-soak beverage. This association is said to originate from the postwar period, before baths and fridges were common in family homes. Local baths (sento) supposedly had the latest refrigerators and worked with milk manufacturers to supply milk to their visitors.
Hopefully, this brief overview of onsen etiquette has given you the confidence you need to make the most of Japan’s many wonderful hot springs. Overall, let the importance of cleanliness and respect for fellow bathers guide your actions. When in doubt, the adage “when in Rome do as the Romans do” should stand you in good stead. In other words, just follow what the locals are doing and I’m sure you’ll be fine. Enjoy yourself, take your time, or as they say in Japanese, “goyukkuri.”
To read more about onsens in general, head over to our article, Onsen: Dip Into the World of Japan’s Hot Springs.