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Japan is a volcanically active country which means it has a plethora of onsen (hot springs) all around the country. Visiting these onsen is supposed to be a popular vacation destination for the work-weary Japanese.

I've been told that, as with other things in Japan, there is a rather strict etiquette surrounding the use of the onsen. In particular, the two things I've read about so far are

  • Swimming Suits are not allowed.
  • It is very important that one bathe immediately before entering the onsen.

Are these true? Are there any other taboos that a naive American should be aware of?

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One other thing: "never put your head underwater". I believe there are some new style places where bathing suits are either OK or required. The bathing place is also provided. The last one I went to had showers as well as "sit on the plastic thing and wash with a big dish of water" spots. Soap and shampoo are also provided. Also, not etiquette but this is the one place in Japan where you should not trust everybody and you definitely should lock up your valuables properly! –  hippietrail May 10 at 5:02
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@hippietrail Locking valuables. Quite honestly I have never been required to do that in Japan before. Do people steal your stuff in onsens? :/ Also, So I understand that swim suits are not allowed, is anything else allowed? Or is going commando a must? –  Aditya Somani May 12 at 1:33
    
@AdityaSomani: I found out the hard way. All my cash was stolen, and nothing else. My wallet was in the pocket of my rolled up jeans. My friend had stuffed his wallet down in his backpack and was OK. Neither of us used the lockers, which required coins. The only time I had been to such a place before was in Korea, where lockers were included and I was given a key. I was shocked by the way as I'm used to trusting everybody all the time in Japan. For info on swimsuits see How common are onsen that require swimming costumes in Japan? –  hippietrail May 12 at 3:30

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Your first point is almost universally true. Whilst there are a few onsen that allow swimming suits and the like, the vast majority do not. The only one I've experienced was in Kagoshima, and this was because it was a small but famous onsen; too small to segregate men and women and so Japanese yukata were permitted.

As for your second point, yes, you typically wash yourself at one of several separated stalls that has a shower, a tap and often toiletries / body soap. The point of the baths themselves is for relaxation rather than to wash.

The general process is:

  • Enter the male or female changing room
  • Deposit your clothes / watch / jewelry etc in a locker, take the key with you on a wristband or keyring
  • Enter the main bathhouse area
  • Wash yourself completely, remembering to rinse off all soap
  • Enter one of the baths and enjoy
  • On leaving, some people take a shower
  • Return to the changing room, get dressed, then enjoy a post-onsen beverage :)

In addition, many onsen will not permit those with tattoos from entering (as tattoos once were and often still are seen as a sign of involvement with the Japanese mafia, the 'yakuza'). However, you can often get round this if you only have small tattoos by applying a sticking plaster.

Other than that, common sense applies. The baths are not for swimming, but for relaxing in, so treat them as such. Don't splash around, no running, and definitely no divebombing...

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So, no cannonballs? :) Thanks for the answer. –  Chris Mueller May 12 at 2:37
    
Hahah, no worries! –  codinghands May 12 at 7:57

In addition to codinghands's great answer I would like to add a few pointers:

  1. Make sure the onsen provides a large and small towel for visitors or bring your own
  2. While you can't wear any clothing in the bath, you can cover up with a small towel
  3. When in Rome, do as the Romans

Towels

Depending on the onsen, towels (a smaller washcloth, and a larger towel for drying off) may be provided free, provided for a fee, or not provided at all.

If you are unsure which category the one you will visit falls under, bring a small towel (a washcloth essentially, something around 20 x 20 cm), and a large bath towel to dry off with afterwards. Some onsen may also not provide soap and shampoo, and so you may want to bring those along as well.

Covering Up

As explained by codinghands, onsen rarely allow swimsuits or any other sort of clothing. Onsen are regularly featured on TV with people wearing large white towels when they go in, but in almost every case there is a disclaimer saying, "They are allowed to wear towels due to special permission from the onsen" and this is not something you should copy.

While you can take precautions to cover up (as explained below), the reality is that people are going to see you unclothed and no amount of trying to prevent that from happening is going to make it work. You are taking a bath with people, and this means that they will see you without clothes on. If this makes you too uncomfortable, then don't go to a hot spring.

Many people (Japanese included) use the smaller washcloth-sized towel to cover up when walking around by holding it in front of whichever parts they would like to cover up. In the case that you use the washcloth after having washed (with soap) with it, be sure to rinse it out thoroughly as you want to avoid getting soap in the actual bath.

When in Rome

codinghands created a nice handy guide on how things (usually) work. But there are quite a few steps, and there are always going to be variations depending on where you go and who's there. Do at least as much as the other people are doing and you should be fine, though feel free to do more. The basic concepts are:

  1. Be clean so you don't get the bath dirty
  2. Don't get anything but yourself in the bath (no soap, towels, etc.)

That said, there's a chance you'll see people come in, shower with water (without soap or shampoo first), and hop in the bath. If everyone else is doing that, feel free to do the same (you can soap up and shampoo first if you'd like, of course). But if everyone is soaping and shampooing thoroughly, follow their cue. In the same way, you will see people hop in the bath with their towel covering themselves. If everyone is doing this, feel free, but if nobody is then make sure the towel doesn't go in the water.

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A few years ago I wrote up a comprehensive guide on going to and getting in onsens for my local website (I love onsens, and have lived in Japan for 8 years). The above answer is correct, however if you'd like more details as well as a start-to-finish getting-in-the-onsen guide, feel free to check out the "Onsen Experience" section at the following link. Onsen - The Mie Guidebook

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WOW, that guide is fantastic! I'm glad I commented so I could look at it when you fixed the hosting. You should drop a few excerpts of your guide into your answer so people give it more attention - answers that are just links tend not to be so favoured. –  imoatama May 13 at 6:38

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