Here’s a guide I put together for anyone who’s looking to visit Japan and are thinking of spending time at an onsen! Are you a bit nervous for your first time at an onsen, because everyone will be naked and you imagine it might get really awkward? Well, I totally understand. An onsen experience in Japan will be something completely different from anything you’ve ever done before. The getting-naked-in-front-of-people part sure seems to cause a bit of anxiety in people who are not yet familiar with Japanese Onsens. But fret not! It is not as awkward as you think, and you will be OK. Besides, it is an experience of a lifetime so definitely do it anyways! I am truly an onsen addict, but my very first few times I tried onsen, I felt super weird about getting naked in front of people. But I quickly learned that it is such a small trade off compared to how amazing onsen soaking feels, and soon enough I no longer cared about being naked because everyone is equally naked and too busy enjoying the onsen to care! Familiarise yourself with these steps on how to truly enjoy the onsen experience in Japan!
How to do Onsen in Japan:
1. Change into a Yukata:
If you are staying in the same hotel or ryokan as your onsen, do this before heading to the onsen. If it’s a bit cold, you can wear an outer jacket yukata, which should be provided in your room, over your yukata. The hotel should also provide slippers to use within the hotel. Use the slippers instead of your regular shoes.
2. Bring Towels & Any Special Toiletries:
The onsen should provide a bathing area with shampoo, conditioner, soap, and face wash. However, if you’re nervous about using hotel’s toiletries, you can bring your own. Japanese standards for cosmetics is quite high though. This is especially true if you stay at a nicer hotel/ryokan. They will probably provide high quality skincare for you to use (and buy if you like what you try).
3. Bring Towels & Hair Tie (if you have long hair):
One of the courtesies while in onsen is not to let your hair down into the water. You will 1 bath towel and a washcloth that you can use to scrub yourself with. You can wet this washcloth and put it on your head to keep cool, but never put the washcloth in the water! If the onsen is in a hotel, these should be provided, but some onsens will require you to bring your own or buy them upon entrance.
4. Get Undressed Completely in the Changing Room:
Once you arrive at the onsen changing room, there should be some baskets on shelves. Remove all your clothing and put everything in the basket. If the onsen is a bigger one, there should be lockers for your valuables too. I usually leave my phone hidden in the basket underneath my towel and yukata. If you’re nervous, you can leave your valuables in your room. It may be a little awkward getting naked right then and there, but trust me, nobody is staring at you and nobody cares what your body is like. Everyone is so used to it, nobody is minding other people’s bodies and business. If you’re shy, you can cover yourself with the small washcloth, but leave the bigger towel in changing room.
5. Take a Shower Sitting Down:
First thing to do once you enter the bath area is to take a shower at the provided spot. In the old days, pubic bathing was very common for Japan. Some rooms in the hotel/ryokan still don’t have bathrooms. Everyone would wash themselves next to the onsen before soaking in the bath. Take a shower sitting down to avoid splashing everybody with soapy water. You can use the washcloth to exfoliate. It’s a good idea to wash yourself with warm water at this point, so you get familiarised with higher temperatures before you enter the onsen. Once you are done, clean your station and your washcloth with hot water. Also tie your hair up if you have long hair. Now you’re ready to get into the hot spring!
6. Start From Less Hot Baths and Move Your Way Up:
Before getting in, you should test the temperature of each bath first. There should be small water dipper that you can use to pour some of the water over your feet to test. Start from lukewarm baths, then move on to the hotter ones. Remember, don’t let your hair or towel into the water. If the water is too hot, you can sit up a bit more and wipe your face with your washcloth which is probably colder at this point.
7. Some Onsens Will Have Cold Baths Too:
The idea is to alternate with hot and cold baths to stimulate your blood circulation. I have tried this with shallow baths you walk through, alternating between warm and cold water. I don’t know how this works for your entire body though. Some onsens have cold baths that you’d soak your entire body in, but I’m not sure if you’re supposed to alternate or not.
8. Some Baths Will Have Very Strong pH Levels:
Often the ones that could potentially irritate your skin are the more acidic ones. These baths are supposedly good for your skin. But if you have very sensitive skin, I suggest you rinse with warm water after you’re done soaking.
9. Dry Yourself Before Going Back Inside:
After you’re done, don’t forget to squeeze all water our of your washcloth and wipe your body so you’re not dripping wet before you go back inside to the changing room. Once you get back in, dry yourself with your bath towel, and put your yukata back on. You can then use the changing room facilities to dry your hair and/or apply moisturiser to your skin. Think of it as a spa! Some places will also provide cooled spring water for drinking, as it is believed to have health benefits.
Before we end this…
I want to give a few little tips for those who are still feeling too shy to get naked in front of people.
1. Most onsens are open throughout the night, so if you’re a bit nervous, you can choose to visit the onsen at a very late time. But take note that this only works if you are staying at the hotel of the onsen. Most onsens have a limited time during the day where they allow day visitors and reserve night time for their hotel guests.
2. However, if you are there for the view like many people are, then you’d want to soak during daytime when you can take in the view while you’re bathing!
3. Another way is to research ahead and choose an onsen that is milky in colour. That way, once you’re in the water no one can see your body!
If you have a tattoo…
Then you need to check whether the onsen you’re going to has a private onsen. Tattoos are generally not allowed in onsens, but sometimes they will make an exception for you if your tattoo is small (in which case they may cover your tattoo with a sticker). If your tattoo is big, some onsens may let you in very late at night where there is nobody around anymore, or you may only be allowed to use their private onsen if they have one. It’s always better to check ahead!
And there you have it, the steps to enjoying your Japanese onsen experience! What do you think? Have you ever been to a Japanese onsen before? How did you find it, and was it awkward getting naked in front of people?
And what do you think of this private playground onsen for kids?