I’m always surprised when I bring up Onsen to Americans as one of my favorite things about Japan – and they aren’t familiar with it. Onsen is the Japanese term for “hot spring” but really it covers a lot more than that. It means the whole cultural experience of partaking in these volcanically heated natural baths. There are literally thousands of them in Japan!
What do I love about Onsen? So many things!
The fact is – usually your are out in nature and you can have have a rare moment to meditate or ponder life, and to enjoy a truly uniquely Japanese experience. A sense of harmony with nature, a sense of healing through the mineral baths, and a chance to reflect.
Oh, did i mention how amazing a HOT bath outdoors in the winter feels as snow falls around you… amazing!
Answers to common questions:
- Is it nude?
Almost always yes, and men and women’s areas are separated / not visible to each other. So nothing to worry about there.
I’ve also been to a co-ed one where a towel is provided for the women and men to cover sensitive areas – but I hear this is less common.
- Is it clean?
Very. In fact it is required that you shower and clean your body/hair thoroughly before entering.
This part is great, and usually an enjoyable, almost ritualistic time for a nice shave. Always be courteous to those in showers around you.
- Towel or no towel?
You will have access to a small towel for your use, but NO TOWELS IN THE ONSEN.
Keeping the Onsen water pure is a big deal, and you will likely upset someone if you bring a towel or any foreign object into the Onsen.
You may see people with their towel on their head, or possibly on a nearby rock.
- What kind of people go to Onsen?
Some American spas or “bath-houses” may have developed some stereotypes or a reputation. Do not compare this to Onsen!
I can assure you that Onsen is a big part of the Japanese culture and enjoyed by almost everyone.
- What about tattoos?
While there is still some stigma attached to tattoos in Japan, I have not encountered any difficulty in the few that I have been to.
It probably helps that I only have 1 tattoo, kept mostly out of view, and am also accompanied by locals.
If you have a lot of tattoos it might be worth checking with one of the locals regarding the specific Onsen in question.
- What’s in the water?
There are some specific requirements for a bath to be considered Onsen including concentrations of certain natural minerals.
The Onsen waters are generally considered to be good for the health, and offering healing properties.
Odds are if you are familiar with Japanese customs, and are able to go with the flow – you will greatly enjoy the Onsen baths, and it will become a favorite like it has for me.
If you are extremely concerned about being naked – many hotels or ryokan 旅館 offer private Onsen where you can experience without anyone else in eyesight. Also with a little research, co-ed Onsen can be found where towels are offered.
My recommendation? Try to enjoy the experience as if you were a local. Just follow what everyone else does and you’ll be fine! Good luck.