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Guide to Onsens - an intrinsic part of Japanese culture

Onsen are an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. They are communal baths, served with water from natural hot springs. Bathing in a Japanese onsen is... Read more
Guide to Onsens - an intrinsic part of Japanese culture

Onsen are an intrinsic part of Japanese culture. They are communal baths, served with water from natural hot springs. Bathing in a Japanese onsen is thought to be good for the skin, metabolism, and is just a wonderful way to relax. The baths are considered spiritual places and there are rules of etiquette, which you will need to follow. Don’t worry it doesn’t take long to pick up the basics. 


1) Get naked!

The first thing to be aware of, is that you are going to have to get naked. Strutting about in front of strangers in the nip may feel alien at first, but the ease and confidence with which the Japanese do this is contagious and liberating. You’ll soon find yourself shedding your inhibitions, and your clothes.

2) Pop on a Yukata

Accommodation that have their own onsen, will usually provide a Yukata (similar to a dressing gown) in your room, and some slippers, which you can wear to and from the baths. 


3) Get your timings right

Onsen, a bit like the swedish sauna, have seperate times when you can bathe, for men and women. Most establishments will have a sign with these times but here's a tip: Look out for red or blue curtains, and learn the sign for Male/Female in Japanese.

4) Test your balance

Once in the changing room it is time to disrobe. Your yukata and large towels should be left here in a basket or locker. You can take a small towel with you, but this must not touch the water. Most people fold the small towel and place it on their heads, you can use this as a ‘modesty towel’ to cover a little of you as you walk around, and to dry yourself a little before re-entering the changing room.


5) Time for a scrub

The first room you arrive into will have a series of washing stations, complete with tap/shower/soap etc… perch yourself on one of the small stools and wash yourself thoroughly. It’s polite to clean down the wash station after use and prepare it for the next user. Once you’ve washed off all the suds you can enter the onsen – time to relax! 

JNK Japan onsen shutterstock 645280435

6) Relax and explore

Larger onsen may have several different pools of different temperatures, cold baths, steam rooms etc… so be sure to explore and experience all the different areas. 

Fun fact! We're not the only ones who like to relax in an onsen. In 1961 (so the story goes), a Japanese macaque went bobbing for an apple in a tourist onsen, and decided to stay in for a little longer. It wasn't long before all of the female monkeys had taken to bathing in the hot springs to benefit for some de-stressing of their own.

You'll be pleased to know though, that while you are relaxing, you won't suddenly find an furry intruder next to you. In order to see the snow monkeys enjoy their own onsen, you'll need to visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park north-west of Tokyo.


7) Once you have de-stressed

After you’ve soaked for long enough, you'll return to the wash station to clean off and everything you need will usually be there, shampoo / hair dryers etc.

8) There are no rules when to bathe

You don't need to worry about when is best to onsen, or how many times a day you can go. Some find a morning onsen invigorating, or you might want to head there relax your muscles after a busy day walking or sightseeing. TIP: the baths are usually quiet in the evening – so after dinner is a good time to visit to figure out the technique and to relax and reflect on the day gone by. 

9) Tattoos are forbidden

In some onsen, not all, if you have small tattoos, you will need to cover them up with surgical tape. 


10) Small tip!

Ask about the mineral content of the water. Some spring water is more acidic than others, or more sulphurous, and in some onsen you will want to remove your silver jewellery as the mineral content of the water can tarnish it.

We love Japan, and one of our holidays, the Nakasendo Trail and Kumano Kodo Pilgramage adventure, stays in two ryokans that have their own onsen. The Yunomine onsen in the Kii mountains of Wakayama, and the Minshuku onsen in Nachisan.

If you would you like to know more about any of KE's holidays, then give us a call on +017687 29644 or USA/Canada toll-free 1888 630 4415. You can also email; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and we can also organise a face-to-face zoom meeting on request. We offer trusted holidays with financial protection and flexible booking conditions. 


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