A visit to one of Japan’s many onsen is an experience like no other around the world, but doing so comes with a number of cultural observances you want to be aware of. Luckily, your onsen host will have your comfort and relaxation as their number one priority; however, it still helps to be aware of the basic customs. That way, you can make the most of the experience and give in to total relaxation, without a care in the world.
The first thing you may need to wrap your head around is in the majority of onsen, visitors go about completely nude. Baths are typically gender segregated, with the entrance marked with blue curtain for men and a pink or red curtain for women. There is a long tradition of cultural understanding about the naked body and onsen, and remember everyone else is naked too. You will be issued a small towel for modesty and to scrub your body as you walk about between the change room, washing facilities, and hot springs. There are of course exceptions, so if you’re feeling rather modest, consider booking a private onsen.
Secondly, make sure you wash before you enter the water. The charming little stools near the baths are there for you to sit on and wash your entire body with soap – remember to wash all the soap off as the hot spring water you enter must be kept soap-free.
Your modesty towel should never be wrung out in the hot spring water, or soaked in it. Some patrons like to keep their towel on their head, or on a nearby rock. If your towel happens to fall in the water, pull it out immediately. If you have long hair, keep it tied up out of the water.
It may be tempting to frolic about in the hot springs, especially if they bubble, however keep in mind the onsen is a space for healing and reflection. Sitting peacefully and allowing the calming power of the water to relax you is what they are there for.
Guests with tattoos
Many onsen will not allow guests with tattoos to use the baths, because of the traditional association between tattoos and gang members. Some facilities are concerned their guests would feel uncomfortable in the presence of people with tattoos.
If your tattoos are small, the easiest option is to use a tattoo cover seal (a skin-coloured waterproof patch) to cover the tattoo. These are available from drug stores or sometimes even from the guest services of some hotels/ryokan.
Here are some suggestions for ways to enjoy onsen if your tattoos are too large to be covered up:
- Find a tattoo-friendly onsen (see ‘Useful links’ below)
- Stay at a ryokan with a private onsen attached to the room
- Stay at a ryokan that has a private bath available for hire for a period of time (called ‘kashikiri’)
- 100 Tattoo Friendly Onsen in Beppu
- Tattoo Friendly Onsen of Kinosaki
- Tsunagu Japan: 8 Hot Springs and Bathhouses in Japan That Even Those With Tattoos Can Enter
- Live Japan Perfect Guide: Tattoo-Friendly Hot Springs and Sento in Tokyo
- Tattoo Friendly – database of tattoo friendly facilities nationwide (with ranking of ‘how’ tattoo friendly they are) (includes onsen, sento, gym, pool, etc)