The Culture Behind Japanese Onsen

by Krystina Quintana

A trip to Japan is never complete without taking advantage of the Japanese onsen available. Similar to Japanese bath houses, these Japanese hot spring options provide a relaxing way to socialize with family and friends. Plus, they are thought to have many health benefits that affect everything from your skin to your organs.

The guide below will offer information on everything related to Japanese onsen, from their history to etiquette. You’ll also discover cities like Hakone, Japan that are known for their onsens and kaiseki dinner. Let’s dive into the guide!

What Is an Onsen?

An onsen is similar to a Japanese public bath. It's considered a social activity, not one that you attend alone. These natural hot spring baths are found at upscale establishments such as a ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn. You'll also find onsen at fancier resorts.

What Is Sento Vs. Japanese Onsen?

There is often confusion between these types of public bath options. A sento is an option where the water is heated, whereas the hot springs in Japanese onsen are naturally warmed. Another difference is that sento baths are typically in a more casual environment, hidden in neighborhoods instead of at resorts like onsen.

The History of Japan's Onsens

Like many activities and foods in Japanese culture, there is no clear indicator of when Japanese onsen became a social activity. The earliest known note of Japanese onsen is in the Nihon Shoki text. This text was written in the 1st century and details the three oldest known onsen: Wakayama Prefecture's Shirahama Onsen, Ehime Prefecture's Dogo-Onsen, and Hyogo Prefecture's Arima Onsen.

When Did Onsen Become Popular?

Onsen did not become popular until public transportation developed in Japan. Once the railways were in place, it became easier for people to travel to the onsen, and their popularity grew substantially. They continue to be a popular activity among locals and tourists alike.

Who Can Go to Japanese Onsen?

Luckily, tourists can now have a Japanese bath experience like the locals. Originally, onsens were not accessible by all people. Instead, they were mainly used by nobility and wealthier individuals in the Kamakura Period.

The only exception is that not all onsen allow visitors with tattoos. Confirming that the natural hot springs nearby accept people with tattoos is necessary. Otherwise, you will be turned away.

Why Aren't Tattoos Allowed?

Throughout history, Japanese people have associated tattoos with organized crime. Thus, they chose to exclude those with tattoos from the onsen. However, this mentality is changing, with many onsens allowing tattooed individuals to visit the hot springs. Some hot springs will allow you to visit with small tattoos, as long as you cover them with a sticker, band-aid, or similar method.

How to Use an Onsen

Using an onsen is steeped in tradition, so there is a specific way of using an onsen. This includes etiquette that each guest is expected to adhere to. For example, before entering the hot spring baths, it's necessary to place all your items in a locker room. You're expected to bring nothing to the Japanese hot spring except the locker key and a small towel.

Japanese Onsen Etiquette: Dos and Don'ts

The below etiquette dos and don'ts will ensure you follow the proper procedures for visiting an onsen, so you can more fully enjoy your experience.

These etiquette rules range from preparing for the onsen to what to avoid while in the hot spring bath. As you can see, the list of dos and don'ts is quite long, though it's important to try your best to follow them as much as possible.

Check Whether the Onsen is Tattoo-Friendly

This rule only applies if you have tattoos. As mentioned, tattoos are not welcome on Japanese onsen, so you must check that the one you plan to visit accepts people with tattoos. Some hot spring baths only accept people with tattoos within a certain time frame. Ensure you gather the proper information before traveling to the natural hot springs.

Avoid a Japanese Onsen if You Are Tipsy

It's never a good idea to soak in hot water if you've been imbibing. This rule is mainly about safety, as hot water can cause you to become dehydrated more easily. Alcohol also will dehydrate you. Avoid becoming dehydrated by skipping the alcohol beforehand.

Drink Plenty of Water

As mentioned, the hot waters can dehydrate you as you're soaking and relaxing. It's best to prepare for the hot springs by drinking plenty of water before and after your visit. Some locations also have a water fountain nearby the hot springs that you can use.

Don't Wear Shoes

In Japanese culture, removing your shoes before entering homes, shrines, and bathhouses signifies respect. Depending on the bathhouse you visit, you may be offered slippers to wear on the premises. Avoid getting these slippers wet, as it can be dangerous. Keep them for use in the locker rooms.

Leave Your Clothes in the Locker

You are expected to soak in the nude when you enter the bathing area. Clothing is not permitted, as the goal is to keep the hot springs as clean as possible. This leads to another rule of visiting the hot springs - don't stare at other people. Everyone will be nude, so there's no reason to feel judged or to judge others.

Only Bring the Essentials

Everything should be kept in your locker except for a locker key and a small bath towel. It's best to keep any larger towels in the locker rooms, as there's no good spot to keep them anyway.

Don't Video Anything

Since everyone is in the nude, you should avoid taking videos or pictures at the onsen and in the locker rooms. This is a private place for people to socialize and relax. If you can, leave your phone in the locker room to avoid temptation.

Shower Before Going into the Onsen

Everyone must take a thorough shower before entering the natural hot spring pools. Most locations offer shower toiletries, though you can bring your items from home. This is an essential step before going into the onsen water.

Skip the Face Masks/Bath Bombs

While some hot springs in other countries may allow you to bring face masks or similar items, they're not permitted at the hot springs. This again ties back to wanting to keep the hot springs as clean as possible.

Avoid the Onsen on Your Period

Like most of the other dos and don'ts on this list, the main goal is to avoid contaminating the water. It's expected that you will avoid the Japanese hot spring pools when you're on your period or when you have any open wounds.

Don't Rinse Before Leaving

Since onsen water has many health benefits, it's expected that you keep it on you for as long as possible. This means that you don't shower on the way out. Instead, dry off as much as possible with your small towel (before entering the locker room) and big towel (before leaving the premises).

Opt for a Private Onsen Bath

You can reserve a private bath if you're uncomfortable being naked around strangers. This private bath is suitable for a group of friends, couples, or family members and requires an additional fee. As a side note, you can have tattoos while soaking in a private onsen.

Most Famous Japanese Onsen Towns to Visit

There are quite a few towns in Japan that are famous for their onsen offerings. Below you'll find some of the top choices for a relaxing hot spring soak.

Kusatsu (Gunma)

The baths in Kasutsu are close to Tokyo, making them convenient to get to. Most people will opt for these famous baths as quite a few options are available.

Hakone (Kanagawa)

The Hakone baths are also nearby Tokyo. These famous Japanese onsens include some of the most stunning views of Mt. Fuji, shrines, and more. Owakudani Valley and Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park are the top choices in the area.

Kurokawa (Oita)

Kurokawa onsen is in a more secluded area in a small town. Some hot springs in Kurokawa are tied to Japanese history when royals would soak in the springs. The onsen here is mainly outside (rare for bathhouses), offering pretty nature views.

Noboribetsu (Hokkaido)

The most famous onsen area in Noboribetsu is "Hell Valley," which comes complete with spooky demon statues in the town center. The onsen here sits in a volcano crater, providing a unique setting for a soak.

Most Popular Onsen

Dogo Onsen - The oldest onsen in all of Japan.

Beppu Onsen - Aside from soaking in a hot bath, you can also enjoy a rejuvenating mud bath in this onsen.

Yufuin Onsen - If you want to enjoy the scenery while bathing, you can do so in this onsen. While bathing, you get a spectacular view of Mount Yufu.

Experience Japanese Culture with Bokksu

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Author Bio

Krystina Quintana is a 29-year-old copywriter living outside of Chicago, IL. Her passion for Asian culture began at a young age as she learned to create Asian-inspired recipes like homemade sushi with her family. This interest in Asian culture continues today with time spent in the kitchen and copywriting pursuits. Krystina has worked with customers ranging from small businesses to food Youtubers with 70,000+ subscribers. With a passion for food and travel, she seeks to help businesses bring traffic to their page by writing blog posts that are engaging, informative, and fun to read.