Onsen: a short guide to proper etiquette 温泉：マナーガイド
Onsen (hot springs) and sento (public baths) are great places to relax. They are distinct communal areas with very precise rules of good conduct and etiquette. So as not to spoil your pleasure and that of your bathing companions, here are some tips.
1. Be sure to enter the correct bath!
Men's and women's baths are separated. The men's bath is indicated by the character 男 (otoko, man) printed on a blue curtain; the women's by the character 女 (onna, woman) printed on a red curtain. Make sure to be careful before entering the bath!
Mixed baths do exist, but they are rare and often run voluntarily by the small local community. You'll usually only meet friendly older people. Mixed baths have rotating bathing times for men and women. Don't forget to ask about bathing times before you arrive.
2. Be comfortable with nudity
In the changing rooms, undress completely and remove your jewelry if possible. Put everything in a small basket or locker. The onsen is a nudist space, so you can't wear a bathing suit - as they're not allowed. It is possible, however, to keep a tiny cotton towel in the onsen, called a tenugui. It's used to wash your hands and body, or to wipe sweat from your forehead in the baths. You can't take it into the bath, but you can place it on your head or put it outside. No towel should come into contact with the bath water. This keeps the water particularly clean.
As a foreigner, some travelers may attract polite curiosity. If you really aren't comfortable with nudity (yours or someone else's), rent a private bath. It's convenient for those with children, but more expensive.
3. Wash before entering the bath
Before entering the baths, it's essential to wash your body thoroughly. There are always showers with small wooden or plastic seats next to the baths. Most onsen offer soap and shampoo. But there's nothing to stop you from bringing your own toiletries.
Once you're all cleaned up, you can head for the baths. Don't hesitate to splash yourself gently with the bath water to get used to its temperature, and gradually work your way back in. Some hot springs can reach temperatures of up to 90° C (194° F), as at Noboribetsu Onsen in Hokkaido!
4. Take your time entering the bath
To allow your body to adapt slowly to the heat of the water, it's essential to enter the bath gradually. Sudden entry into very hot water can cause thermal shock, which can be uncomfortable or even dangerous for some people, especially those with circulation or heart problems.
Entering gradually also allows your blood circulation to adjust and your body to relax gradually, helping to maximize the therapeutic benefits of the thermal bath experience.
5. Be aware of the tattoo regulations for each bathhouse
As many people know today, many onsen don't allow tattooed people. This is because of the negative connotations associated with heavily tattooed Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). Even though, with the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the rules concerning tattoos have been relaxed a little to facilitate access for tourists, many onsen are still reluctant to allow guests with very apparent tattoos.
Here's some advice:
- If you have one or more small tattoos that can be easily hidden, conceal them with a special sticky strip.
- If your tattoos are too large or too numerous to hide, find out in advance about onsen that accept tattooed people. There's usually at least one in every spa town, or you can book a private bath.
- Alternatively, you can book a private bath. It's more expensive, but you'll be able to experience the pleasure and benefits of very popular onsen. It's also a particularly relaxing and soothing experience to enjoy a private onsen. It's more expensive, but you'll be able to experience the pleasure and benefits of the very popular onsen. It's also a particularly relaxing and soothing experience to enjoy a private onsen.
Onsen are places of relaxation and tranquility. It is important to maintain silence or speak softly so as not to disturb other bathers. Please do not dive, swim, or splash. Onsen are not swimming pools. This would also be frowned upon by the locals. Also, please do not put your head underwater, staying submerged up to your shoulders. Long hair must be tied back on top of the head.
7. Avoid staying in the bath for too long
The recommended duration may vary according to factors such as water temperature, heat tolerance and state of health. Staying too long in hot baths means risking dehydration or discomfort. We generally recommend bathing sessions of between 10 to 30 minutes. This is often more than enough time to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of thermal waters.
Some onsen may have specific guidelines regarding the recommended length of time to stay in the baths. Be sure to carefully read the instructions provided by the establishment and follow the staff's recommendations.
8. Rinse off!
Rinsing is recommended for certain types of mineral composition. A quick wash will get rid of the acid, hydrogen sulfide and other minerals present in some waters, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Other rules of etiquette or tips to know!
- No photos!: If you want to take some nice souvenir shots, book a private onsen for that purpose!
- No alcohol!: With the excessive heat, this can lead to overheating and discomfort.
- Remove your jewelry: Certain minerals can damage it
- Be careful if you have skin conditions: It's advisable not to bathe in onsen and thermal baths if you have skin condition.
- It is sometimes possible to rent towels on site: It's very practical!
- Bring cash: As in many places in Japan, cards are not accepted, so remember to give change, which can also be used at the lockers.