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One of the best things about visiting Japan is just how much there to see, do and learn there. Japan is a truly magical country, with countless customs and unique traditions to encounter. And one of the most soothing Japanese traditions you could experience during your trip to Japan is onsen.
An onsen is a natural hot spring used for bathing, and Japan has PLENTY of them. The natural hot springs are the result of Japan’s geothermal activity, and they’re a great way to see how nature and tradition interact.
Visiting the town’s public onsen was a necessity before houses had their own showers and bathtubs, but many people still visit onsen today. The heat and minerals found in the natural pools are said to improve circulation, moisturise the skin and speed up recovery.
But the biggest benefit I noticed wasn’t to do with my body at all. It was my mind. As we walked out into the Hokkaido snow after our first onsen experience, we all looked more relaxed and refreshed than I thought possible. Once you’ve visited an onsen and felt that extreme relaxation yourself, you’ll understand why onsen are still so popular in Japan.
In fact, onsen is such a popular tradition in Japan that you’ll even find monkeys bathing in hot springs…
How to onsen
Even though you could easily watch the bathing monkeys all day, don’t forget to pull yourself away and try the (human) onsen for yourself. And after hearing about all the benefits, you might be wondering why you wouldn’t…
Well, here’s the thing: you have to bathe nude.
There’s a chance you’re completely unfazed by that small revelation, but there’s a good chance it’s put you off a little. There are usually separate baths – or separate times – for men and women, but stripping off still puts many travellers offer.
Yes, it can be scary if it’s your first time visiting an onsen. Perhaps it might even feel like a little too much if it’s your first time in Japan. But I promise it’s something you won’t regret and could even be your favourite experience in Japan.
How to use onsen
Plucking up the courage to bare all is a lot easier when you the know what in the world you’re supposed to be doing. So let’s talk about that.
The first thing you’ll notice on entering some onsen is just how big – and steamy – they can be. If you’re feeling shy, these are both positive things: the number of baths normally means you can have one all to yourself if you like, and the steam means you (and everyone else there) can’t see anything too clearly.
Before you get to the steamy part, however, you’ll have to take a shower. After locking your things away in the changing room – and grabbing a towel or robe for modesty – you’ll walk through into a kind of funny looking area.
This is the area for washing, scrubbing and doing whatever else you need to do to keep the onsen water pure for everyone. After all, I don’t know if I mentioned this but you’re all going in there naked.
Choose a stall, sit facing the wall and hose yourself down with the mini shower head in front of you. Here, you can also lather up with soap and shampoo if you wish – just make sure you rinse it all off before entering the onsen baths.
And now the fun begins!
Smaller onsen might only have one pool, but many of the larger ones have multiple pools at different temperatures. There will usually be marked on the wall next to each pool. It’s worth checking before dipping a toe because some can get pretty hot!
Some onsen may have a jacuzzi or sauna along with a mix of outdoor and indoor baths. I’d recommend going for either the biggest onsen you can find if you want the full experience or the smallest onsen you can find if you want the most authentic.
Even though you’re supposed to bathe nude in an onsen, you don’t have to walk around completely naked. When you enter the onsen, you’ll be given (or be able to rent) two types of towel. The first is your usual bathe towel for drying off fully and should be left in your locker, and the second is a small face towel for drying yourself before entering the changing area.
Many onsen guests use this second towel to cover themselves while moving around the onsen. Sure, it won’t cover everything, but holding it in front of you will make you feel less exposed.
This small towel must not touch the water or get wet. While in the baths, you can lay it on the side or fold it on your head. In my experience, most people do the latter.
The only thing worse than looking like an idiot is looking like an idiot in the nude… so here’s how to avoid that. You’ll usually find everything you need to know on the walls as you enter, but here are some onsen rules you should definitely know!
You have to bathe naked
I know we’ve already gone over this one, but it’s kinda important. If you’re feeling anxious, rest assured that nobody will stare or look at you. Even when they’re walking around naked, the Japanese are very modest and reserved. The good news is you’ll never be shy stripping down to your swimsuit again!
The thought of jumping into a communal bath sounds a bit gross, doesn’t it? That’s why there are showers to wash yourself before entering the onsen. In fact, the Japanese find the idea of bathing in dirty water so gross that they shower before bathing in their own homes too.
Head above water
Just like your towel, your head shouldn’t touch the water. If you have long hair, you should also tie it up so it doesn’t touch the water.
Do not swim
Visiting an onsen is supposed to be relaxing, so save the breaststroke for the hotel pool. To keep the onsen a peaceful place, you should speak in a hushed whisper at most and avoid running or splashing.
Cover your tattoos
Tattoos are still taboo in Japan due to their association with gangs. And since you don’t want to be associated with bad guys, covering any visible tattoos with a plaster is best both inside and outside the onsen. If you have large tattoos that cannot be covered, it might be best to avoid the communal onsen and look for a ryokan with a private one instead.
No photos allowed
It should probably go without saying, but cameras are a big no-no in the onsen. The same goes for peeking into the opposite gender’s side… Leave your phone in the locker with your clothes, embrace the nudity and enjoy the experience.
The best onsen in Japan?
Visiting the Hokkaido hot springs was one of my highlights of Japan. The snowy mountains and steamy landscapes were a world away from the colourful streets of Tokyo and something I just wasn’t expecting from our time there. I would even go as far as to say it’s the best onsen in Japan… but I haven’t even visited half of them.
If you’re planning to visit Hokkaido during your trip to Japan, visiting an onsen is a must. The contrasting temperatures and sparse land make it the ideal setting for a totally chilled out day, especially if followed by a hot bowl of creamy Hokkaido ramen. Mmmm.
If you can’t get to Hokkaido, however, don’t worry. Even if you’re only planning to stay in and around Tokyo, you don’t have to miss out on the onsen experience. From Osaka to Kyoto, you’ll find onsen all over Japan.
Related read: Everything you need to know before planning a trip to Japan
Famous onsen in Japan
Given that there are more than 3,000 onsen towns in Japan, there are plenty to choose from.
Hakone onsen is one of the most popular and is an easy day trip from Tokyo. It’s also one of the most popular spots for viewing Mount Fuji, so it’s the perfect way to combine the two if you only have one week in Japan (or less!).
Other famous onsen towns in Japan include Kusatu Onsen, which is a little further north but still easy to access, and Noboribetsu, where I had my first onsen experience in Hokkaido.
Whichever onsen you end up near, do go in and check it out. It’s such a unique experience and one that you’ll almost definitely want to repeat.
The best onsen tours
So all you have to do is turn up and enjoy…
Experience 13 different thermal baths in the heart of Tokyo in this budget-friendly Odaiba tour
Work up a sweat hiking Kurama mountain before relaxing your muscles in a local hot spring
This full-day tour from Tokyo will show you all the highlights of Hakone, including the famous onsen
See the snow monkeys enjoying the monkey before experiencing the hot springs yourself