When you make your first trek to Japan you’re in for a few culture shocks. Featuring somewhere on the top of the ‘potentially awkward’ list would have to be the Onsen experience. While it’s possible to avoid the experience altogether you would be doing yourself a massive disservice and it is worth the cost of a little discomfort.
First things first, what’s an Onsen?
If this is the first time you’ve heard the word Onsen… that’s pretty impressive. Onsens are more or less hot bathing springs that pop up throughout Japan. There are around 27,000 onsens around Japan and more than a few thousand onsen towns. Naturally, with such an abundance it’s become a favourite past time for residents and there’s a strong case for their therapeutic benefits. If you’re visiting the snow anywhere in Japan and your body is starting to feel a bit worse for wear, then a soak in the onsen is going to set you straight.
Back to Onsen Etiquette… The Top 5 things to be aware of.
1. Be Nude.
The first rule and perhaps one of the biggest hurdles to westerners is ‘public bathing’. This is the number one rule in same-sex onsens and usually only flexible in mixed onsens. You have to take the walk from the washing/scrubbing area to the onsen in the nude... some onsens offer a tiny modesty towel but it must never enter the water. It's usually just used to help cool off and wipe the sweat from your brow.
2. Be Clean before entering - Onsen’s are strictly for soaking.
Most onsens provide a place to bathe and scrub before heading into the bath itself and we do mean scrub.
3. No Photos, No Phones
It’s easy to want to snap every moment when you’re abroad but our advice for the onsen moment is to enjoy it. Leave the technology at home and learn to relax without scrolling.
4. Check your Ink... your tattoos might be a massive no-no!
While this rule is being increasingly overlooked for westerners make sure you check with the onsen first. Tattoos are banned due to their association with the Japanese criminal underground.
Kiyomi had this to add when we asked her about tattoos in the onsen. "In Hakuba, we do not mind Tatoos as much as we used to. However in very conservative onsen towns, you need to be careful. I think it is more about behavior, attitude and actions that we care for more than your ink".
5. Be Respectful
As always when in a foreign place be respectful and observe custom. In an onsen it means not going below your shoulders, not getting your hair in the water, no splashing, quiet conversation only, being clean before entering… and, yep, being nude.
Quick Tip: Onsens are HOT and they’ll take a while to get used to, while there’s not really a time limit, you’ll most likely only want to spend around 10-15 minutes in the onsen.
The Japanese are big on their onsens and we reckon you’ll understand why after you've had a hard day of skiing and hitting the slopes. There's nothing quite like having a steamy hot bath filled with mineral-rich water to wash the aches away. Our advice is simple "When in Rome, do as the Romans..."