All You Need to Know about Onsens

Visiting an onsen—natural hot spring—is a must-do part of any stay in Japan. The waters of Japan’s famous hot springs are some of the most relaxing and healing in the world. Strip away your shyness —and your clothes—and prepare to feel warmed to the core.

Overview

Many Japanese people love baths. Relaxing in the tub at the end of the day is something people look forward to; in most Japanese homes the bath and shower are separated, which places extra important on the bathtub. The Japanese phrase “hadaka no tsukiai” (naked relationship) refers to the strengthening of interpersonal bonds while bathing together—thereby hiding nothing from one another.

Since its inception in the 7th century, bathing in onsen has become a great form of leisure for the Japanese. An onsen, however, is much more than a normal bath. Due to their many minerals, onsen waters have incredible health benefits. According to legend, onsen were discovered when people saw animals healing themselves in the waters. Samurai would often use onsen to treat their battle wounds. It’s been scientifically proven that onsen waters can aid in maintaining good health and remedying some aches, illnesses, and injuries. Ailments like high blood pressure, skin conditions, diabetes, arthritis, and more can all benefit from onsen waters.

Japan has some of the most active volcanoes in the world. It’s thanks to that activity that there are thousands of onsen scattered across the country, mostly found in the countryside. Due to their unique mineral compositions, charms, and specialties, no two onsen are the same.

You can easily find onsen on maps. They are usually marked with the kanji for hot water 湯 (yu), the hiragana ゆ, or the symbol ♨. There are many with ryokan and hotels built beside them as well.

Types of Baths

There is a wide variety of onsen and public baths in Japan, each with their own special characteristics. Here are some of the types of baths you may encounter:

Onsen(温泉)

Often translated to English as "hot springs." An onsen must be warmer than 25 degrees Celsius and contain at least one of nineteen elements as designated by the official "Onsen Law"—surely only Japan would have such a law! The elements include lithium, sulfur, sodium chloride, and iron. If an onsen naturally meets those conditions with geothermally heated springs they are called tennen onsen (天然温泉), or "natural onsen." This is opposed to jinko-onsen (人工温泉), or "man-made onsen," which—as the name implies—meet the conditions artificially. Onsen are also usually classified as either volcanic or non-volcanic.

Roten-buro(露天風呂)

Bathe and relax while surrounded by the tranquil beauty of nature in these outdoor onsen. Can also be called noten-buro (野天風呂).

Sento(銭湯)

A public bath. They differ from onsen in that sento use heated tap water instead of those with special minerals. Sento are more common in major cities and often beloved by locals.

Super-sento(スーパー銭湯)

A "public bath theme park" of sorts, these often have a wide selection of facilities, such as different style baths, varying mineral compositions (often artificial), saunas, massages, restaurants, resting area, and more.

Dai-yokujo(大浴場)

Sometimes also called yokujo (浴場). This refers to a hotel or ryokan’s large bath, which may or may not be an onsen.

Ashi-yu(足湯)

A foot bath, a quick and convenient way to warm up. These can even be found on some streets and are free of charge at some onsen villages and resort towns.

Utase-yu(打たせ湯)

A waterfall onsen where water splashes down on the bathers sitting beneath the falls to act as a sort of massage.

Mizu-buro(水風呂)

A cold bath, separated from the main bath at an onsen or sento.

Kashikiri-buro(貸し切り風呂)

Literally "reserved bath," these are found at high-end hotels and ryokans. Sometimes called kazoku-buro (家族風呂), or "family bath."

How to Bathe in an Onsen

  1. Pay the entrance fee. There are sometimes additional costs for towels, soap, shampoo, and so on; you may even need to pay at a ticket machine.

  2. Enter the appropriate changing room: for men that’s through the navy-blue curtains, usually marked with (otoko); and for women it’s red curtains with (onna) on it.

  3. Using a basket or locker, store all your clothing and accessories.

  4. Enter the bathing area nude with a clean hand towel, which is provided or available from a ticket machine.

  1. Shower stations are equipped with a stool and a bucket. Fill the bucket with water and pour it over your body (usually about ten times), starting from your feet and working your way up to your head.

  2. Use the hand towel to thoroughly wash your body. Stay seated on the stool to prevent splashing water in the onsen or on other patrons. Rinse and wring out your hand towel when finished. At older hot springs there may not be a shower, in which case you may enter the bath after the previous step.

  1. Slowly enter the onsen—but take care, waters are usually 40–44 degrees Celsius. Enter the water gradually, from your feet and knees working your way up to your shoulders. Any time that you feel too hot, take a break and sit on the rim of the tub—usually after 5 or 10 minutes. Repeat this a couple times but remember: bathing for more than 30 minutes total may be dangerous and cause dehydration or dizziness.

  2. Before reentering the changing area, wipe down your body with your hand towel. Proceed, dry off, and change back into your clothes. Some onsen also have hair dryers available for you to use, so don’t catch a cold.

Etiquette & Points to Note

Before bathing:

  • Onsen entrance fees can range from 200 to 2,000 yen but usually falls between 400 and 800 yen. Sento are usually cheaper, while—due to the number of available facilities—super-sento tend to be more expensive.
  • Although you can bring your own body towel, most onsen provide or rent towels for 300 to 500 yen.
  • Most onsen provide soap and shampoo, however, if they do not, you’ll be required to purchase some.
  • Many ryokan and hotels open their onsen to the general public—for a fee. Just because you aren’t staying there doesn’t necessarily mean you cannot use their facilities.
  • Most changing rooms do not have a restroom. Be sure to use them before you enter.
  • As the vast majority of onsen have separate bathing areas for men and women, it’s important to set a meeting location and time.
  • Some onsen are shared, but used by separate genders at different times. Be sure you know the correct time. Very few onsen today are konyoku (混浴), or mixed baths (except for kashikiri-buro).
  • To prevent dehydration, it’s recommended that you drink some water. Do not, however, drink so much alcohol that you are intoxicated—or you’ll be asked to leave.
  • It is encouraged that you don’t eat before bathing.
  • If you’re staying at a ryokan, it’s polite to rest in your room for about 30 minutes before going to the onsen.
  • Even though a few onsen have relaxed rules regarding tattoos, the majority still ban patrons with tattoos. This is because of the culture between tattoos and the Japanese mafia (yakuza). If you have a tattoo, ask before paying the entrance fee if it’s all right for you to enter. You may be required to cover it up or refused.

While bathing:

  • It’s a must to shower before you enter the bath. The shower is for cleaning, the bath is for relaxation.
  • Some onsen minerals can make the floor slippery, walk carefully.
  • As a general rule, you are not allowed to wear anything in the bathing area.
  • For modesty, some people may carry their hand towel in front of them before they enter the water.
  • Only your body can enter the onsen water. Place your hand towel to the side of the bath or on top of your head. If it happens to fall into the water, wring it out outside of the bath.
  • You may find that the onsen establishment has a few different baths, usually with varying mineral compositions. You are free to try them out (some may require an extra fee) and you only need to shower before entering the first one.
  • People typically enter the bath and sit in the most open part of the bath—though usually not beneath the waterspout as it can be very hot.
  • If you enter the sauna, sit on your hand towel and be sure to use the cold bath or take a cold shower afterwards.
  • You can sit on the rim of the bath between soaking periods. If you begin to feel dizzy or nauseous, leave the bath.
  • Photography is not allowed inside most onsen; check with staff beforehand.
  • Conversation is perfectly acceptable while in the onsen but it’s important to be aware and considerate of the other guests. There is an echo effect in many indoor onsen.
  • Diving, splashing, and swimming are prohibited in the onsen.

After bathing:

  • After leaving the bath for the final time, it’s recommended that you do not wash off as it gets rid of the many beneficial minerals. However, having a quick cold rinse, which is also healthy, has its own benefits.
  • In the changing room, you’ll often find combs, hair dryers, and other amenities.
  • After your bath why not try the Japanese custom of cold milk after a hot bath. Try a refreshing bottle of furutsu gyuunyuu (“fruit milk”) or koohii gyuunyuu (“coffee milk”); they’re delicious!
  • Onsen tamago (onsen eggs) are also a specialty. It is, quite simply, an egg slow boiled in onsen water and steam. Some onsen even sell bottled onsen water for the health benefits if you ingest the water!
  • There are often rest areas in the lounge area. Try out one of the massage chairs.
  • To avoid dehydration, it’s recommended that you drink water, tea, or a sports drink after leaving the bath.
  • Drinking alcohol after exiting the bath will further dehydrate you and so, is not recommended—although this doesn’t stop many.
  • Although onsen are relaxing and beneficial to health, it’s generally not a good idea to enter more than three times a day.

Notable Hot Springs in Japan

Japan has a plethora of amazing onsen. Any one of them is sure to be a relaxing and rejuvenating experience but those listed below are typically considered to be the best of the best. Please note that some of them refer to onsen areas and districts instead of a specific onsen. Try out as many as you can:

Three Big Onsen of Japan

  • Atami Onsen (Shizuoka)

  • Nanki Shirahama Onsen (Wakayama)

  • Beppu Onsen (Oita)

Three Famous Springs

According to The Pillow Book:

Three Famous Springs

According to Hayashi Razan:

Three Ancient Springs

Based on the Nihon Shoki:

And finally...

Humans aren't the only ones who enjoy onsen—learn about the snow monkeys in Nagano that love to take baths!

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