An onsen can be described as a Japanese hot spring, and the bathing facility built around it. The hot springs are natural water heated by subterranean volcanic activity. Onsens are a vital part of Japanese culture, as it is a way to experience 'hadaka no tsukiai.' 'Hadaka no tsukiai' literally translates in English to mean 'naked relations.'
Photo: Japanexperterna.se on Flickr
However, it's more in-depth meaning, is the practice of developing a closer relationship with others by showing you have nothing to hide. It encourages the formation of a close bond beyond societal constraints. All barriers are removed, including ones: race, physique, age, and ethnic background. Onsens are seen as a way to cleanse the body, mind and spirit. Japanese natives find this important for maintaining health, healing the body, rejuvenation, and relaxation.
Kurokawa Onsen, Minamioguni, Kumamoto.
Photo: David McKelvey on Flickr
In Japan, there are designated ways to do almost everything, with onsens being no exception. Adhering to the social expectations listed below can save you from embarrassment.
What to do at a Japanese Onsen
1. Bye Bye Shoes
Shoe Lockers at Dogo Onsen
Photo: Rick Elizaga on Flickr
Facilities tend to be furnished with tatami mats. Tatami mats are made of tightly woven rushes and are difficult to clean. Thus, it is considered extremely rude to wear shoes on these mats. So, upon entry, you will notice persons flocking to an area where shoes are removed and kept.
Please note: this removing of the shoes custom, must be done even if the mat isn't used as a furnishing.
2. Women see Red, Men see Blue
Please pay attention to the persons who walk into the room. Female sections tend to have a red curtain with the kanji for women inscribed on it; 女. Male sections tend to have a blue curtain with the kanji for men inscribed on it; 男.
Photo: mizoguchi.coji on Flickr
I would advise using the bathroom beforehand, as many onsens do not provide bathrooms beyond the bathing area.
Have a drink prior to entry as well, as the hot springs tend to be >25oC and sometimes the air is humid.
3. Strip Tease! Strip Please!
Most onsens are nude only. The only thing permitted inside the onsen is a small wash cloth. Please adhere to these rules. Please do not let any insecurities you may possess prevent you from enjoying 'hadaka no tsukiai.' Overcoming your fears of being naked in front of others, or discomfort with your body, will be well worth the experience.
Onsen at Sunrise
Photo: Michelle Meyer on Flickr
The first time I went to an onsen, I broke out in fearful sweat. I was so nervous I was shivering with every step. However, I went unnoticed. No one bothered to look beyond my eyes. They always made eye contact while talking or moving. After taking a dip in the heavenly waters, I soon forgot about my nakedness.
Also, tie up your hair if it is long. Remove jewellery as minerals in the water may cause discolouration. Do not bring prescription glasses into the water. The coating on the frame or the coating on the lens may be damaged as a result.
4. Sweat Removal
Look for the stools. Sit on it. Grab the soap and shower. Soap is not permitted into the onsen water so wash it all off. Also, showering on site is required to ensure you enter the mineral waters completely clean. Shampoo and conditioner is also provided. However, persons normally use these when they are getting ready to leave the onsen.
Sweat Removal Area
Photo: Ville Misaki on Flickr
Please note: Bring toiletries in a waterproof bag, as some facilities do not make provisions.
Also, if there is no conventional shower, please use the bucket provided to wash off. If there is no pipe water, please use the hot spring water. Stoop at the side of the hot spring, dip the bucket in and wash off on the outside.
5. See and Do
Pay attention to what others are doing with their wash cloth. Most places allow for 3 options:
- Place the small towel on your head (this prevents blood from rushing to the head)
- Place the small towel off to the side of the hot spring when you enter it
- Place the small towel in the designated area near the showers where some have chosen to leave theirs
Please note: under no circumstances is your towel supposed to enter the hot springs water. If your towel accidentally falls into the water, please wring it out at the side.
Open Air Onsen by Sakurajima
Photo: Yevgen Pogoryelov on Flickr
6. Slow and Quiet
Enter the water slowly. The water is hot, and entering it fast may shock the body. Fast movements may also cause water to splash on others. Note as well that the facility floor may be slippery. Moving fast may result in injury.
What NOT to do at a Japanese Onsen
- Do not take photographs or videos
- Do not enter the change room wet
- Do not add cold water to the hot spring
- No swimming
- Do not participate if you are menstruating
- Do not wash your clothes
- Do not wash your hair or body in the hot spring
- No smoking
- Do not drink the water without checking with hired personnel first. Most onsens do not permit hot spring drinking!
- Avoid alcohol before hot water immersion.
- Babies who have not yet learnt to control urination and excretion are not permitted in the water
Do not speak loudly