Japanese hot springs (onsen 温泉) have been enjoyed by the Japanese for well over a thousand years; in the days before modern medicine, it was believed that a dip in the onsen could cure just about any ailment.
Today, both locals and travelers in need of some rest and relaxation head to the nearest onsen. A visit to the hot springs is a near-sacred experience for some, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the basics of onsen etiquette before you go.
Fortunately, a trip to the hot spring is never too far regardless of where you are in Japan. Due to the island’s high levels of volcanic activity, there are literally thousands of naturally occurring hot springs located throughout the country. A lucrative business opportunity and major tourist attraction, onsen resorts and hotels tend to pop up almost immediately after a new spring is discovered.
Guests can stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) or opt for a modern, Western-style spa resort. The most popular Japanese hot springs are typically located in the more mountainous regions of the country, such as Hakone, Gunma, and Hokkaido.
Japanese hot springs etiquette
1. No bathing suits
While you may be excited to show off the speedo you bought while vacationing in the south of France last summer, bathing suits are forbidden in the Japanese hot spring. Indeed, everyone there is naked. If this seems off-putting, keep in mind that it is the norm here and most people become used to it rather quickly.
2. Shower before and after you bathe
Keep in mind that the baths are communal; you are sharing them with others, and it is imperative that you fully clean yourself before entering the water. Every Japanese hot spring has rows of showers complete with shampoo and body soap.
3. Keep your hair out of the water
Help keep the water clean by tying long hair up in a bun or a small towel (towels are usually available to buy or rent for just a couple dollars). Refrain from putting your head underwater.
4. Know the tattoo policy
Traditionally, people with tattoos are forbidden from entering the onsen, though in recent years this has become less strictly enforced. It is at the discretion of the onsen staff. Generally, a small tattoo that can be easily covered is easy to get away with, but larger, more visible tattoos might prevent you from being allowed to enter.
5. Don’t be obnoxious
The hot spring is a place of tranquility; while it is certainly okay to talk amongst yourselves, it is not meant to be treated like a public pool. Avoid splashing and making loud noises.
6. Don’t drink too much (or at all) before entering
Aside from the obvious health hazards, drunk people are generally not received well by others in the Japanese hot spring. Nobody will stop you from entering just because you’ve had a few, but do try to keep your voice at a reasonable volume, and don’t fall asleep in the bath!
…and for those who have tattoos?
As mentioned above, tattoos still have a negative image in Japan. Still nowadays, many (maybe even most) onsen establishments do not allow tattooed people to enter the bath area. You may find very prominent signs showing tattoos are forbidden near the entrance, so for those of us with tattoos, what is there to do? Here are a few ways people get around this policy in Japan:
- Getting a private bath, available in some ryokan.
- Hiding one’s tattoos with waterproof patches. It’s probably the most common solution, especially if your tattoos are small.
- Looking for onsen which specifically allow tattooed individuals. Although they are more uncommon, they do exist! Some websites have lists of onsen allowing tattoos, but keep in mind that these websites are often unofficial, and may not be entirely up to date. For this reason, we recommend you to do a quick Google search to make sure the onsen you plan to go to is still in business. One helpful website is Tattoo-friendly.
- Finally, if nothing works, sentō (public baths) are usually more flexible than onsen, and arguably offer the same experience, depending on the place. If it means being able to enjoy Japanese baths, no reason to be picky!
Visiting a Japanese hot spring is a truly Japanese experience, and if you follow the onsen etiquette, you’ll be sure to have a relaxing time.