Whether it’s outdoors, indoors, in a public house or at a private resort, few rituals are more observed in Japanese culture than bathing in hot springs, or ‘onsen’.
When I think of traditional customs in Japan, I place it near the top of the list – up there with bowing, bonsai and baseball.
Thanks to the country’s volcanic landscape, there are onsen all over Japan. And with naturally heated, mineral-rich waters, taking a soak in a hot spring is said to be great for your physical, mental and even social wellbeing.
But before you partake in this most Japanese of rituals, there are some things you need to know.
Here are ten tips to remember:
- Go totally naked. While there are some onsen that cater for Westerners (or others who don’t like to bathe naked), the vast majority require total nudity. So don’t be shy, and do as the locals do…
- Always wash yourselfbefore entering the water (use the shower cubicles in the bathhouse)
- Enter the water slowly. It’s considered unwise to completely submerge yourself in an onsen straightaway, mostly due to the hot temps (usually between 42 and 48 degrees) involved. So gently lower yourself into the water over a period of a minute or so.
- Keep it quiet. Like in many walks of Japanese life, unnecessary noise is frowned upon. Instead, bliss out on the sounds of waterfalls and other natural elements common in onsen.
- Don’t overdo it. Keep your soaks short, to a maximum of 10-15 minutes. And don’t onsen more than three times a day.
- Dry off before re-entering the locker room. To do this, take a small handheld towel into the onsen with you. If you can’t find somewhere suitable to place your towel, wear it in on your head like everyone else (just don’t drop it into the bath).
- Stay hydrated. You will sweat, so be sure to drink water before and after you enter the onsen.
- No photos.Where there’s nudity, there shouldn’t be cameras. Where are you gonna hide that thing anyway?
- Cover up those tatts. Tattoos in Japan have long been associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and other salubrious types. So if you have them, especially if they are obvious ones (eg on your torso or arms), buy a concealer to cover them. Yes, in Japan you can buy concealers to cover them.
- No food or drink. Taking a bath is often a social experience, but don’t treat it like a party, and avoid eating and drinking alcohol.
Natural hot springs are rare in Tokyo. So unless you’re happy to pay big bucks for the experience at a hotel like Hoshinoya Tokyo (which you might deem worth it as this property is AMAZING), you’ll need to head outside of the capital for true onsen.
One of the top hot spring spots close to Tokyo is Hakone, where there are many onsen resorts to choose from. If you want a first-rate experience, try the excellent Hakone Kowakien Tenyu.
Afterwards, you can take advantage of everything else Hakone has to offer, including its awesome natural attractions and views of Mt Fuji.
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