What Is…The Best Way to Enjoy Onsen?
the best way to enjoy onsen?
written by Steven A. (intern extraordinaire and contributor)
edited by the Samurai Sports editorial team
You often see the word "onsen" while planning your trip to Japan,
but what exactly is an onsen? And how do you "onsen" like a native?
The word onsen has broad meanings and can be used to describe a bathing facility or facilities in hotels, ryokan (traditional inns), resorts, and local neighborhood bath houses. Going to an onsen is an important part of Japanese culture and serves purposes beyond simply washing oneself. The onsen is where families and friends gather to relax, unwind, and bond.
Many onsen are also reputed to have healing properties due to the mineral deposits in the waters. For example, the presence of sulphur in onsen is alleged to heal back pain while acidic waters can heal scars and athletes foot. Similarly, water with concentrated amounts of alkaline and iron are believed to be effective in exfoliating skin and improving blood circulation, respectively.
My first onsen trip was a small hotel in Hokkaido with my Japanese cousins. For most foreigners, including myself, bathing nude can be a bit of a cultural shock, but I daresay the Japan experience would not be complete without it! To begin with, you'll change in a common room with complete strangers. Then you'll put away your clothes and personal belongings in a basket in a cubby hole. Most onsen operate on an open storage concept; however, secure lockers for storing valuables may be found at some onsen.
Once in your birthday suit, most people will strategically cover their bodies with a thin face towel. Depending on the onsen, you may be able to rent or purchase a towel for a fee (or for free). You may also bring your own towel. Keep in mind that large bath towels are permitted in the changing room as a means of drying off but are not allowed in the onsen (and certainly not in the waters). On the other hand, a hand towel will likely be too small to serve much of a purpose.
Your onsen experience can be further Japan-ified by donning a yukata. This traditional Japanese garment is worn before and after the onsen. Since Japanese sizes tend to run small, you should make sure the yukata fits in private before unfortunate incidents occur. If the provided yukata doesn't fit, don't despair! Most establishments keep a few larger (and longer) sizes, so it doesn't hurt to inquire about a different size! At a minshuku, ryokan, or hotel, it's common to wear a yukata for most indoor activities, including eating, sleeping, and walking around.
Before going into the water, you should be mindful of behaving appropriately and follow onsen etiquette. Don't feign ignorance! The below are manners that everyone, including foreigners, should follow.
Wash your hair and body before entering the onsen. The point is to keep the onsen water as clean as possible for everyone! There will be rows of shower heads with a faucet, stool, and a little tub to utilize in thoroughly scrubbing yourself clean. Most Japanese don't keep the shower running while seated (on the stool); rather, they'll fill their tub with water and use it to fulfill their washing up, and adding more water (with the faucet) as necessary. However, no one will bat an eye if you keep your shower running...you water-guzzling monster, you!
Enter the bath slowly! Soak it in - this isn't a race and the water is hot.
Towels should never touch the water. As much as you want to hide certain parts of your body, it is considered bad manners to let towels soak in the water.
No running, swimming, yelling, or horsing around. Remember, an onsen is a place of peace and tranquility.
Once you're sufficiently warmed up and are ready to exit the onsen, try to dry yourself before re-entering the changing room.
Most onsen strictly prohibit tattoos due to their association with the yakuza (the Japanese mafia), so if this applies to you, it would be wise to check their policy before entering.
Once you're done with the onsen, you'll feel warm and relaxed! Japanese tradition dictates the consumption of coffee milk or ice cream - but really, anything cold will taste refreshing and be satisfying. Many ryokan and hotels will serve an elaborate traditional Japanese dinner in your room but it's best to inquire and book in advance.
Similarly, most places of accommodation serve a traditional Japanese breakfast, including broiled fish, steamed rice, and miso soup. Onsen tamago, or soft-boiled eggs slow cooked in onsen water commonly served with a soy-sauce based broth are not to be missed! The more daring should try nattou, or fermented beans. The taste, texture, and smell may be challenging to get past but just like your onsen experience might be, there's a first time for everything!
Don’t be fearful of visiting an onsen! Just give it a try once and you’ll see why everyone loves it!