Onsen baths have been an iconic element of Japanese culture for centuries. Onsen (the Japanese word for ‘hot spring’) can be found throughout the volcanic island and locals believe bathing in one of the mineral-rich pools offers considerable health benefits, curing everything from dermatitis to chronic back pain.
When tailoring our unique insider tours to Japan, we often recommend including at least one visit to an onsen bathing pool, accompanied by one of our local Backyard Travel guides who can share the dos and don’ts of complicated onsen etiquette.
If you’re visiting Japan without a local to help however, make sure you keep the following Backyard Travel tips in mind:
The vast majority of onsen are enjoyed in the nude, and do not allow swim suits. Your clothes and belongings must be left in the changing rooms in the baskets or lockers provided, and you should take only a small towel or washcloth with you into the bathing area. More often than not, onsen baths are separate sex but konyuku baths allow both men and women to soak together.
Before entering the onsen, it is vital that you wash thoroughly; onsen baths are for relaxing, not cleaning. A dedicated washing area will be found close to the pool, perhaps with a small stool to sit on as you cleanse. Ensure no soap residue joins you as you enter the pool, as the water must be kept as pure as possible to maintain its balneotheraputic benefits.
After rinsing off, it’s time to soak. Carrying your hand towel or washcloth (perhaps in a position to maintain your dignity), gradually ease your way into the pool (to avoid splashing others as much as acclimatize to the water temperature) and avoid soaking your towel either by placing it to the side of the pool – or if you want to look like a pro – drape the towel over the top of your head as you submerge yourself into the therapeutic waters.
Rules in onsen around Japan will operate with slight nuances, but it is safe to assume photography is not permitted in public baths. Tattoos are also a point of controversy when it comes to onsen and are usually not permitted in most public baths no matter the size or design. Swimming is also prohibited. Of course, should you opt for a private onsen (called ‘kashikiriburo’), no-one will notice if you break these rules.
The onsen experience doesn’t end once you emerge from the healing spring – many onsen also feature additional rooms where you can relax and take advantage of massage chairs while you enjoy a refreshing drink.
Our expert Travel Specialists are keen onsen lovers and can provide an exclusive list of the most exceptional hot springs across Japan. If you’re thinking of planning a tour to the Land of the Rising Sun, be sure to get in touch with our expert tour planners who will be delighted to tailor an insider Japan tour that includes a visit to a scenic spot for an onsen bath.