Onsen dos & don'ts

13th April 2016 | by Annie

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The hot spring bathing culture is one of Japan’s greatest pleasures, but it’s also one of the more intimidating things that Westerners can do there. Our quick guide to onsen etiquette will help you brush up before you take the plunge!

This may be something to do with the compulsory communal nudity, but the etiquette involved can also put people off. Once you take the plunge and give it a try, you realise that being in the buff isn’t much of a problem - everyone else is too, after all, and they’re more interested in relaxing than ogling or judging.

No tattoos

This might seem unfair given how commonplace they are in the West, but in Japan tattoos mean gangs - their association with Yakuza is so strong that in many onsen even the smallest tattoo will have you barred from entry. Some onsens are more liberal with foreign visitors, and some will let you cover compact tats with a skin-coloured plaster, but larger areas like sleeves and full back art will likely be a problem. If you’re covered in ink and still want to experience an onsen, look for one with private baths.

Do:

Wash before entering the shared water

Yes, you’re about to get into what is essentially a giant bath. But it’s a shared bath, and nobody wants to bathe in other people’s dirty bathwater. Get a massageSome onsens and ryokan are just about the bathing, but many offer spa services such as massage, which are well worth taking advantage of where available.

Drink warm sake in while you're bathing

If warm sake gets served to bathers while you're soaking, it's hard to beat, providing you're happy to drink alcohol. Make sure you drink water, too.

Try out the different temperatures

If you're in an onsen that offers different temperature pools, it's surprisingly relaxing to switch between them. Aching muscles really benefit from a switch between chilly plunge pools and warm herbal baths.

Don’t:

Wear a swimsuit

Bringing any fabric into the water is seen as dirtying the water, hence the nudity. Splash, jump, dive, make any noise, or generally frolic in any wayThe onsen is a relaxing place for quiet contemplation - ease yourself into the water, and once you’re there keep noise and disruption to a minimum.

Swim

Perhaps a little unexpected - you’re in a public bath, after all - but it’s much closer to a Roman style bathhouse than to a lido, and swimming is considered disruptive to other bathers. Just use the place to soak and muse.

No running!

A standard poolside rule across the globe, it’s even more important when you’re surrounded by slippery natural rocks instead of slip-proof tiles.

Take photographs

Because everyone will be naked and trying to relax, photography is prohibited throughout.

Wash or wring out your towel in the onsen water

For similar reasons to the ‘wash first’ and 'no fabric' rules, this is considered very rude. Fold your towel and put it on your head to keep it dry, or place it on a nearby rock. If you do accidentally get it wet, wring it outside the bath.

Peek

Many onsens are gender segregated - when they are, it’s considered bad form to sneak a peak around any partitions into the opposite area! If you wish to bathe with your family, find a mixed onsen or one with private baths.

Get the day wrong

Some ryokan are open at different times for each gender, so check first to make sure you’re allowed in. 

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