The Ultimate Guide To Becoming a Japanese Onsen Master
Enchanted by Japan’s ancient Onsen culture, but unsure of the correct etiquette involved? You’re not alone. Dating back to as early as 712AD, the bathing ritual may include a standing, wooden or flat water bath, they may be open air or in a cave, or feature jet baths or televisions. Some onsens ban people with tattoos, some are single sex only, or some cater for entire families.
Writers Michelle Mackintosh and Steve Wide have spent 15 years dipping in and out o of onsen culture all over Japan, from rubber duckie-filled kawayi yu (themed baths) to traditional cedar wood lined hinoki.
The duo has co-authored Onsen Of Japan, a guide to the country’s best hot springs and bathhouses, including a very helpful guide to navigating the complex culture ahead of time. They share a few handy tips below.
How to Onsen
You can find instructions on onsen and onsen behavior everywhere. Even in the onsen themselves there will usually be a visual chart or instructions in English. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly feel confident to tackle the bathhouse. Quite often the rules will end up stressing you out – there seem to be too many things to remember, too many mistakes that can be made. But it can be quite simple: instead of thinking of it as a custom from another culture that presents many opportunities to slip up (while naked in public), it’s easier to apply a bit of common sense and manners to the rules and see how it all comes together. It’s a communal activity, so mindfulness of others is high on the agenda.
Look at it as a set of instructions on how to care for the environment you are in and maximise the comfort of other bathers, which will in turn make your experience more pleasant. Cleanliness, peace of mind and gentleness of atmosphere are all taken into account; after all, this is not only purification of the body, but the mind and the soul as well. Sorry to get all zen on you, but in this case the concept couldn’t be more applicable. So let’s examine the general onsen rules and modes of behaviour. They may vary slightly from place to place, but it will be a minimal change (check wall charts or side-eye your fellow bathers if you are unsure). Instructions provided can often be basic, so we’ve gone all out so that you know what to expect.
Steps To Prepare For An Onsen
The first step in most places is to remove your shoes, put them in special lockers and slip into the sandals provided. Shoe lockers will usually be inside the building but outside the onsen changing room. There may be a fee or a refundable ¥100 deposit, and there will be a key, a block of wood (in older onsen) or piece of metal that slots into the lock. From here you can shuffle in your slippers to go and pay at the desk or get a ticket from the machine nearby.
The attendant will show you the way to, or point to, the entrance to the onsen change room. This is usually through a curtain which is almost always pink or red for girls and blue for guys – quite often they will feature the ‘man’ or ‘woman’ kanji, sometimes a male or female icon or illustration, or sometimes they will say ‘women’ and ‘men’. Head through the one that’s right for you.*The attendant may also give you a towel or onsen kit for an extra fee.
Inside the change room is where the naked happens. You’ll see people standing around in various states of undress. If you’re in a ryokan, hotel or super sento you’ll be dressed in your yukata, a casual summer kimono. Wear your underwear underneath. Disrobe and put your clothes and onsen kit in the lockers (or, in older onsen, on open shelves with pigeon holes or baskets). In some of the older onsen, these clothing lockers can be made from amazing old woods with bamboo baskets – treasures in themselves. Put your shoe locker key here as well. If it is a lockable locker, lock it once your things are inside and remove the key. They will always have a coil or band attached and you can wear the key around your ankle or your wrist. The only thing you need to take into the actual bath is the small washcloth you are now using to self-consciously cover your private parts. There’s no shame in this, in fact you’ll be surprised at the number of locals who will also have a wash cloth hovering over their bits.
Don’t be messy! Change rooms are a hive of activity. Don’t take up all the space with your towels and clothes. Be sure to fold everything neatly (so your outfit isn’t damp and crumpled after your bath). Fold your underwear on the top of your clothes, then place your towel and toiletries on top of the pile. This way, when you open your locker door you can dry yourself with your towel, put your underwear on, wrap yourself in your towel then go and blow-dry your hair and put on face cream etc, then get dressed.
Always be thoughtful when bending over naked. Okay, so you have to dry your feet, but try to position yourself so your back is facing your locker. It’s just a matter of manners and being thoughtful.
For anyone with shoulder-length or longer hair, please tie your hair up. Hair dangling in the water is a big no-no. For those of us with hair that gets ‘fluffy’ in humidity, tying your hair up (especially if you are not washing it) is a great way to ensure you look ‘as you were’ when exiting the bathhouse.
Now you are inside the bathhouse the fun begins. Quite often they will be steamy, sometimes like a London fog. They can be dark and atmospheric or they can be bright with nowhere to hide. Find the rows of taps and bath bowls and claim one that is free. These spaces are for everybody so don’t ‘stake your claim’; use them and move on.
Westerners are used to standing up to shower, but in a sento or onsen, this is the moment to sit down and take your time. Each cubicle has a stool and a bath bowl. Take your stool and give it a rinse then have a seat. Turn the taps one way for the shower hose or the other to fill your bath bowl. Depending on your preference either bucket water over yourself or use the hose as you would at home.
In some really old-school places, there are no showering cubicles. If this is the case grab a bath bowl and stand on the side lines. Take water directly from the onsen and pour it over your self making sure that your washing water absolutely does not find its way into the pristine waters of the onsen. It’s one big wet room so you can pour your washing water onto the floor. Purity is key with these sacred waters so be aware that locals will be making sure you are abiding by strict rules (we learnt this the hard way!)
Time to wash your body. Again, don’t be messy! Use the products to wash your whole body and rinse thoroughly. Put the shampoo and conditioner, body soap or gel back where you found it. Make sure your stool and bath bowl are as they were before you sat down. The walk from the washing stations to the baths can be a little slippery so walk slowly and carefully.
The important bit: Bathing etiquette
When you enter the bathing areas, you may be hit with a huge choice of bathing options. Many factors go towards choosing where to start; these are the factors that we consider.
If the weather is warm, we start with the indoor baths and end with the outdoor baths. If we have sore muscles we may choose to try a jet bath then end with a more relaxing bath. If the weather is cold we will spend all our time in the outside baths (there is nothing more beautiful that being outdoors in hot water while it is snowing). If we see some one- or two-people baths we’ll hover in a bigger bath close by until one becomes available, then make a beeline.
We steer away from super-crowded baths or baths with TVs. We will always try a hinoki (wooden) bath first, or a bath that looks different to something we have tried before.
Many baths have the temperature shown on the wall. Depending on the weather we may decide not to enter the cold plunge bath in winter and the super-hot ones in summer.
The smell of the water is a factor for you; we might choose a smell we like if the bathhouse has more than one water source or if it has a medicinal or seasonal ‘flavoured’ bath.
After your onsen
Check out the mirrored grooming station in each onsen. Some will have blow dryers, face creams, hair ties, cotton buds, brushes, hair oil, moisturiser, and, in special cases, products made locally from the onsen water. In general, the more you pay to enter the bathhouse, the more lavish this section is.
Be sure to hydrate. Always have a drink before and after a bath. There should be a water fountain in the change room, and you can try a small yoghurt drink, coffee or chocolate milk (there will always be a vending machine in or around the change rooms). These mini pick-me-ups are a good way to both rehydrate and refuel after the hot water. We can’t have a bath without having one of these drinks afterwards!
Fruit is a great replenisher. We’ve seen mini fruit stalls set up out the front of bathhouses for this reason. Yoghurt drinks, green tea and, for many people, a local beer really hit the spot. Make sure to seek out and make use of the relaxing room if your bathhouse has one.
Most importantly, take time to have your bath and have no fixed plans after your bath.
Get your own onsen kit together
Many onsen provide towels, wash cloths and a variety of accessories. Sento and onsen not attached to accommodation will also provide these things, often at a small cost. But there’s something great about getting your own kit together, looking like the expert as you saunter into the changing room. Get a mesh bag and stuff it with a fluffy towel and a soft washcloth. Pack small bottles of deodorant, shampoo, conditioner and moisturiser if you have preferred brands. A comb or brush is also helpful and anyone with long hair will need something to tie it up with – here a hair turban can be useful to keep unruly hair dry and out of the water. Nearly all onsen will have hairdryers in the outer rooms.
This is an edited extract from Onsen of Japan by Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh published by Hardie Grant Travel $29.99 and is available where all good books are sold.
Published 27 June, 2018