A country of 108 active volcanoes, Japan has a history of enjoying its abundant hot springs for thousands of years. Onsen, or hot springs and the facilities that surround them, are a go-to destination in Japan for people looking to soak away stress. “The onsen experience is the ultimate relaxation method for Japanese people,” said Keiko Matsuura from the Japan National Tourism Organization. Today, Japan is home to more than 3,000 onsen, giving you plenty of opportunities to visit one while you’re visiting the country. Like experiencing many of the nuances of Japanese culture, visiting an onsen can be confusing to navigate as a foreigner. We asked local experts to break down some basics to make your hot spring visit as rewarding as possible.
You’ll be soaking nude
It’s customary to experience Japanese hot springs in the nude. “Foreign guests should be aware that most of the hot springs do not allow swimwear,” said Yoshiko Nagata who helped write an onsen etiquette guidebook with her colleagues at KAI, a collection of traditional Japanese inns. “Some of the places are mixed bathing where both genders can bathe in one area (most of the baths were mixed bathing in the past as well).”
The tradition has spiritual roots
Visiting an onsen is said to be therapeutic for the body and the soul. “At first, it started as a religious ritual because of the saying that bathing can purify one’s hearts and minds,” said Nagata. “But once people started to realize that hot springs can cure illnesses and moisturize the skin, it became a custom. Even today, people go to hot spring alone just to relax.”
Tattoos are forbidden
While bodies of all shapes, sizes, and ages are welcome into onsen, tattooed ones are not. “In the past in Japan, tattoos were an identifying mark or used to let everyone know that the person was a member of a criminal syndicate,” said Nagata. “Until today in Japanese society, people think tattoos are the mark of the yakuza and makes them fearful.” Tattoo-friendly onsen do exist; you can find one that accepts inked guests by searching online. Another option is to use waterproof, skin-colored stickers to cover up tattoos. Not every onsen will have stickers available for use, so order some ahead of your trip.
They’re good for you
Because of their mineral-rich waters, onsen are believed to be healing places. “Each onsen has its own unique health benefit based on its specific chemical components,” said Matsuura. “Potential benefits of soaking in an onsen range from releasing stress to alleviating acute pains.” Research an onsen visit ahead of time to find which places are good for your particular ailment.
Soak the right way to get the most out of your experience. “Before bathing/immersing your whole body, warm up with Kakeyu, first at the pit of the stomach, then gradually get used to the hot spring until the neck,” said Nagata. “While taking a deep breath for about 10 minutes, soak in the hot spring to the neck. After dipping in the hot spring, make sure to cool off with fresh water (sometimes it is better not to rinse off too much to get the effectiveness of the hot spring).”
You can find onsen indoors and outdoors, in simple straightforward bathhouses, stunning remote settings, and places in between. Where you soak will determine how much you will pay for the experience. “Prices range widely, from as little as $10 to a couple of hundred dollars and up per night at an onsen ryokan (ryokan inns that have onsen),” said Matsuura.
You can go alone
Don’t be afraid to visit an onsen solo even though it’s common to go with friends or family. “Some people go to onsen alone, but a lot of people do tend to go in groups as a social ritual or as a family, especially if it’s combined with other activities (ski & onsen, hiking, and onsen, etc),” said Matsuura.
Eat and drink accordingly
Don’t load up on a giant bowl of ramen before you head to an onsen, but don’t go starving either. “It is not effective to be full or hungry when bathing in hot spring because when one is full, the body is adjusting to digesting food and when one is hungry the body is using up all the energy to stay still,” said Nagata. “On the other hand, we recommend to take either minerals or vitamins before and after the bathing since these the body will have expended a lot of sweat after a visit to the onsen.”
Make sure you stay hydrated during your session. “We recommend taking 10 minutes of bathing and having a water break,” said Nagata. “It is said that people can lose 800ml of water from the body from bathing so if one can have a water break every 10 minutes, it should be okay to bathe for a longer timeframe but spending too much time may stress out the body.”
Observe proper etiquette
To avoid being reprimanded by older onsen goers, respect the rules. “Generally the traditions for onsens are quite uniform in terms of structure across Japan,” said Nagata. “One custom that the Japanese observe is washing the hands and mouth with water as a form of purification before entering the onsen proper. Wearing white robes is also another custom in the water (another symbol of purity).” Shower before you enter the onsen, and do not bring your towel in the soaking tubs.