One of the most popular places to visit in Japan is it’s historic onsen. The hot springs are world famous and usually have a spa attached to it. Depending on where you go you may have a different experience, but generally you will always come out of it refreshed. There are a few rules about onsen that you should know, so that you will have the best experience possible.
Shower Before the Bath
In Japan you don’t bathe to clean yourself, it is more of a relaxing way to destress your body and remove all of the negative energy from the day. Since that is the case you will need to wash yourself before entering the bath itself. Every onsen will have a shower area either next to the hot bath or in a room before entering the bathing area. They usually have shampoo, soap, and conditioner for you to use that is basically part of the entrance fee. Wash yourself thoroughly and make sure not to take up any more space than necessary. There won’t be separate stalls and everyone will shower in the same area before the bath. If you don’t shower before entering you will anger the regular customers, and they may tell the staff to correct you or remove you from the onsen.
Your Birthday Suit
When you make it to the bathing area you will see many of the regular patrons completely in the nude when going into the bath. This is a requirement and other clothing or towels are not allowed in the bath. These articles of cloth are seen as dirty, since you have used them to either dry yourself or they have been against your unclean skin. If you accidentally do get in with a towel the other guests will let you know. There are some onsen in Japan that do have a bathing suit rule, but this is usually for mixed bathing onsen.
As many people have heard, there is a strict no tattoo rule in almost every onsen in Japan. It is based in the fact that traditionally anyone who had a tattoo was a member of the yakuza, the main Japanese crime organization. Yakuza would typically have traditional Japanese art tattooed on their skin and it would signal to people which family or branch they belong to. The best thing to do is to ask if you can keep them covered with a towel. If you have a Japanese friend or guide with you, get them to do the talking. More times than not, you will be refused though. Even though most people and owners still hold this rule there has been a push to allow tattoos that don’t resemble yakuza ones. Japan has been gaining more tourists every year and they are finding that they are losing out on lots of travelers’ money. Try your best to find ones that don’t have signs or a written statement about no tattoos.
Don’t let it all Hang out
Even though the areas for bathing and showering are open and everyone can see everything, you will have a small towel that can be used to cover small parts of your body. You will see the other bathers use it when walking to and from the baths and showers accordingly. This is the same for both sexes and should be followed. That being said, if you don’t decide to cover up, the rest of the bathers most likely won’t care. It isn’t seen as a strict rule for covering up, but more of a common courtesy.
Once you get into the bath you should stay for a while. It isn’t a quick process, and you should enjoy the soothing warm waters for a long as possible. You will even see some people falling asleep near the edges of the bath. During this time most people will become more sociable with you. The same people who were giving you looks before may try to start up a conversation while you soak. These situations tend to relax Japanese people and they can feel more at ease when dealing with strangers. If you don’t want to be sociable you can simply tell them so. You should try to talk with them though, as most are trying to practice English or are simply curious about where you come from. There is always a chance to meet a new friend who knows about some of the secret spots in town.
Other Basic Rules
- No staring at the patrons, try to be considerate.
- Wash yourself when moving between the baths.
- Tie your hair up and keep it out of the water.
- Wipe down before entering the locker area.
- No drinking or drunk people allowed in the bath.
- Keep conversations to a low volume.
- If you are on your period, it is best to skip the onsen.
- Clean up after you are done in the showers.
- Don’t do any unnecessary grooming.
There are a lot of rules and cultural boundaries that come with onsen, but they are a perfect way to experience part of Japanese culture. Make sure to keep in mind all of the small things that may hamper your bathing adventure. You represent the nation you are coming from so try to leave the best impression possible. Try and follow the other native Japanese bathers and you should have an enjoyable time.