Japanese etiquette 101: How to Onsen

Ask almost anybody at InsideJapan Tours what is their favourite thing about Japan, and they will probably list the people, the food, and the onsen. Heck, ask any Japanese person what is their favourite thing about Japan and they’ll most likely say the same.  And yet for such a well-loved pastime, onsen are also probably the scariest part of Japanese culture for most foreigners.

But don’t worry – after reading this guide, you too will be an onsen master!

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

Senninburo, a giant outdoor onsen bath carved into the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (photo: Kumano Travel)

What’s an onsen?

First things first! An onsen 温泉 (lit. “hot water spring”) is a natural hot spring bath, and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity Japan has lots of them.

Onsen water is geothermally heated beneath the ground and rises to the surface bubbling hot. The prerequisites of an official onsen are that the water must contain at least one of the 19 designated chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring water, and it must be at least 25C when it comes out of the ground. Rotenburo is another word you may hear in Japan and refers to an outdoors onsen (the best kind!).

Sento, on the other hand, are indoor public bathhouses supplied by ordinary heated water. Whilst onsen are generally looked on as something as a treat, sento are the everyday bathhouses of ordinary Japanese people – and as such make a very interesting experience in themselves, although sometimes it can be a bit daunting to enter on your own as very few foreigners take the time to seek them out.

Nevertheless, the rules of etiquette are the same for both onsen and sento, so with your newfound skills you’ll be able to tackle any bathhouse with aplomb.

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Onsen and sento entrances are marked by half-length curtains. Red means women; blue means men! (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

What’s so great about them?

Communal bathing doesn’t exactly sound appealing to most gaijin (foreigners), but in Japan it is a beloved part of traditional culture.

Onsen water has been believed to have a multitude of healing properties basically since time began, and is packed full of minerals that are thought to be good for your skin, circulation and general health. Onsen baths can be beautiful objects in themselves – made from materials such as cypress wood, marble and granite – and are often situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty or attached to lovely traditional inns, which enhances their appeal.

There really is nothing more relaxing or therapeutic than lying back in a hot bath after a long day – especially when you’re surrounded by falling snow, on a beach, overlooking a beautiful mountain view, or listening to a river rushing past. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never look back!

Nyuto Onsen's famous outdoor bath

Nyuto Onsen’s famous outdoor bath

So what do I need to know?

There are quite a few rules of etiquette surrounding onsen bathing, and this can make the whole thing seem a little scary and uncomfortable when you’re not sure what you’re doing – but once you’ve done it once you’ll realise that it’s really not that complicated after all.

THE RULES:

1. Birthday suits only!

Yep – you heard me. No speedos allowed! This (unsurprisingly) is the bit that puts most people off, and anybody at InsideJapan will tell you that they all felt the same anxiety the first time they tried it. Once you dare to bare, however, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it – and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness. (N.B. I have heard tell that a fair bit of staring is par for the course in the mens’ onsen, but I can vouch that it’s very civilised in the ladies’!)

For those who really can’t stomach the idea of stripping off in public, there are a number of ways you can get around it. For one, there are many traditional ryokan inns where the guest rooms have private rotenburo baths attached (these will be amongst the more expensive rooms), and in some inns the public baths are available for private use on request. Another alternative is to visit an onsen with milky water – once you’re in, nobody can see anything!

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

A makeshift onsen dug from the riverbed at Kawayu Onsen (Photo: Kumano Travel)

2. Shower before you bathe.

To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is, well… pretty gross actually! Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath – and this is even more important when you’re visiting a communal sento or onsen – to keep the water as clean as possible.

To this end, every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath. Soap, shampoo and conditioner are usually provided (though you can bring your own if you prefer), and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you – and you must remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bath water.

Though it’s less important than showering before you bathe, most Japanese will have a quick rinse under the shower after a soak in the onsen – and if they are returning to the bath after using a sauna or steam room.

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Typical bucket and stool used for washing at an onsen (Photo: Kifu no Sato)

3. Towels

At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. This is not always the case at local sento baths, so you are advised to bring your own.

The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room (along with your clothes), while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you (in fact, many people put them on their heads!) but you mustn’t let it go in the water.

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

Enjoying Nyuto Onsen

4. Hair & head

If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel, as even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower – you should take care to make sure that it doesn’t go in the bath water. You wouldn’t want to be sitting around amongst other people’s hairballs, would you? Well that’s why.

In fact, even if you don’t have any hair you should refrain from putting your head underwater, as there is always a small chance that shared water may carry infection, and putting your head underwater increases your risk of catching something.

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

Onsen overlooking the mountains at Mount Tokachidake

5. Tattoos

As I explained in a recent post, tattoos are something of a taboo in Japan – thanks for the most part to their association with Japanese organised crime (the yakuza). Unfortunately, this means that most onsen and sento ban tattoos completely – even if it is blatantly clear that you are not part of the mafia. It doesn’t make much sense, but rules is rules!

If you have a small tattoo, you may well get away without anybody noticing – or you can cover it up with a sticking plaster or bandage. If you have a larger tattoo that’s difficult to cover you may have more problems. Some solutions are to stay at ryokan inns where there are private rotenburo baths or onsen that can be rented for private use, or to head to the hotel onsen late at night after the other guests have dispersed. If you’re very brave, you could even find out where the real yakuza bathhouses are – but we’re not going to recommend it!

Sign forbidding tattoos at (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

Sign forbidding tattoos at Tobu Super Pool (Photo: spoon-tamago.com)

6. Noise

Bathhouses are social places, and most onsen-goers like to have a bit of a chat while they relax – so as long as you’re not being rowdy you certainly don’t need to worry about making too much noise.

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

Indoor bath at Nyuto Onsen

7. Alcohol

Onsen and sento will generally display signs indicating that you should not drink and bathe – for pretty obvious reasons I think. That said, a cup of sake or a cold beer while you soak can be divine, so if you’ve got your own private rotenburo then I say go right ahead!

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

(Photo: Kifu no Sato)

Our Infopack does contain the low-down on ‘How to Onsen’ so that you can relax and enjoy this cultural activity – bliss.

InsideJapan and the Japanese Ministry of Environment

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park

Kirishima Kinkowan National Park is famous for it’s beautiful and otherworldly volcanic scenery.

As a representative of InsideJapan Tours, I’ve been working with the Japanese Ministry of Environment to help them promote overseas tourism in their National Parks. Together with loads of great local people, several of us longtime expat foreigners have been traveling around to various National Parks in Japan to see just what’s on offer. As with my visit to Nikko National Park a few weeks ago, I am beginning to realize that even in places I’ve been to multiple times before, there is still so much more to see.

Friendly people

As is so often the case in Japan, we were met by friendly people every step of the way.

Because InsideJapan Tours believes in getting travelers beneath the surface of Japan when they visit, I’m always happy when I can help find new ways to make that vision become reality. And it’s finding lesser visited destinations like this one that allows one to see the Japan of the past and just what it is that makes the country so special. This week I went to Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park with an amazingly talented group of individuals including the great photographer Everett Brown, the publisher of the fantastic Japanese language travel magazine Kyushu no Mura, the supremely talented Brad Towle – director of the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and the fine folks from Umari – one of the coolest operations in Japan that I know of.

Romance and water

Thinking of honeymooning in Japan? How about following the trail of the very first honeymoon couple in Japan. The famous samurai Sakamoto Ryoma came here after his wedding, a long time before he became an instrumental figure in overthrowing the government.

Edo station

This little old train station hasn’t changed much over the years. There’s no ticket machine and there’s no one here to check your ticket even if you had one. But what really makes it special is that a local family sells a bento here with food that is reminiscent of what people were eating 100 years ago. It has been voted the best bento in Kyushu but I will go on the record as saying it is the best bento I’ve had anywhere in Japan!

onsen

At almost every onsen town in Japan you will hear stories about why that onsen is better than onsens in other parts of the country, but if you come to this part of Kagoshima you will find so many varieties of hot spring that there are local people who can recommend you an onsen depending on exactly what ails you. I opted for the hangover onsen.

Land  of the Gods

In Japanese mythology, this area is where it all begins. The true land of the gods. While visiting some of Kirishima’s famous shrines I was struck not only by the elegant Shinto architecture but especially by the beautiful surroundings. Each shrine we visited was more secluded than the last and all of them were beautifully interwoven with the island’s vast natural surroundings.

Ryokan

If you have yet to experience Japanese hospitality, you are in for a treat! Scenes at traditional ryokans – Japanese inns – like this one turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

Pure water

At cleansing stations near the entrance to most shrines and temples in Japan you will find intricately crafted dragons with crystal clear water pouring from their ferocious looking mouths, but I think I like this home made version almost as much.

Food

A twist on traditional Japanese incense, the tea placed on top of this small porcelain lamp gave off just the slightest perfume. The owner of the soba restaurant where I found this explained to me that although traditional incense can overpower the taste of the food, the smell of green tea compliments their dishes. Wonderful!

134 year old direction

What I love best about this 134 year old direction marker is that the carvers chose a hand with its pointer finger extended rather than a simpler arrow to direct travelers (like myself) in the right direction.

Shrines and temples

This shrine was on a big hillside overlooking a couple of mist covered volcanos and a big blue lake. Completely deserted, we took our time to enjoy it’s every last detail.

Duck!

These little ducks acted like they were our best friends… until they realized we didn’t have any food. ;)

Thinkers stream

Just minutes before returning to the airport, Everett and I were looking at a beautiful little stream that was running in between peoples’ houses. At first we thought it was just a regular river born of rain coming down from the surrounding mountains but a local took us up to its source (pictured here) and we learned that it is actually a spring. We could literally see the water gushing up from out of the ground. Everett said it best, “heaven on earth”!

Rediscovering Nikko (Part 1 of 2)

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

Kegon Falls in Nikko National Park

For me, there is almost nothing better than going to a part of Japan that I have never been to before and seeing yet another facet of this wonderful country. But I am always amazed at how much there is to be discovered even in destinations that I have been to multiples times before. As the title might imply, the place in question this time is Nikko. Less than two hours from Tokyo, the main draw for most visitors are Nikko’s spectacular shrines and temples, rightly deserving of their World Heritage status. But there is far more here than what most visitors ever get to see. This is partly because the ease of making a day trip from Tokyo is often preferred over the more rewarding but slightly more difficult option of staying overnight and getting out into the countryside to see a completely different side of Japan. This multiple part blog post is about some of the places worth visiting in Nikko National Park.

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

Serving up freshly cooked fish with style at the Ryuo Gorge

The Ryuo Gorge is not only beautiful, it’s also one of the easiest places in Nikko National Park to access by train. From the hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen, a jumbling little train whisks you through dense forests to a quiet little station near the entrance of a walking path that takes in lush scenery and will have you wondering if the bright neon of Tokyo was just a dream. But as the picture above can attest to, it’s not just the escape from concrete that makes this a deserved stop on your itinerary. The colorful locals and delicious freshly caught river fish make this an all-around cultural experience. Throw in a couple cups of sake and a dip in the hot spring at the end of a long walk and you can have a quintessentially Japanese experience all in an afternoon.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Just a taste of the wonderful scenery that can be enjoyed along the Ryuo Gorge.

Speaking of sake, if you’re thinking of visiting a sake brewery, you’d be smart to be picky about the one who visit for, alas, not all sake breweries are created equal. But fear not, for Nikko has a sake brewery of unparalleled greatness. Not only are the brews here about as tasty as you’ll find, the owner is as nice a man as you’ll meet anywhere and will be happy to show in to parts of his brewery that most sake makers wouldn’t dream of letting tourists see. Although, if it’s busy you may well be asked to lend a hand! ;)

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama-san showing me and a few other visitors around his brewery

Katayama Brewery is named after it’s owner and is located not far from Shimoimaichi Train Station (a short taxi ride or a slightly long walk away). Here you can not only do tours of the brewery but you can enjoy free tastings of the sake that will have you seeing the brew more like fine wine than the rocket fuel like stuff that is often served overseas. If you are feeling like splashing out, try the specially made version of his best and most popular sake that has platinum and gold flakes in it. Though if you set off the metal detector at the airport upon your departure don’t blame me!

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some 'omotenashi' at one of Kinugawa's Hot Spring Resorts

Slip into a yukata and enjoy some ‘omotenashi’ at one of Kinugawa’s Hot Spring Resorts

At the end of a day of walking and sake tasting, I can think of few better things to do than relaxing in a hot spring and tucking into some Japanese fine cuisine. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to do this in Nikko’s National Park. The Kinugawa Grand Hotel (picture above and below) is just such a place. For a fraction of what a similar type of place would cost in Tokyo, you can be spoiled to your heart’s content. Though you aren’t likely to encounter many English speakers here, you can be sure that you will be welcomed with open arms and a deep bow upon your arrival. Enjoy some of Nikko’s craft beer and a big plate of sashimi and take in the beautiful surroundings in your Japanese style room.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

Just one among many hot springs at the Kinugawa Grand Hotel in Nikko National Park.

 

Asama Onsen: Have bath, drink milk.

Hotto Puraza Asama, a 20 minute bus ride from Matsumoto station, has all you need for a relaxing afternoon soak: outdoor and indoor baths, a jet-bath and a sauna.  Oh, and a vending machine stocked with milk.  For some reason, onsen and milk go together like sport and Lucozade.  The cow juice is a rare treat – but it makes you miss Weetabix even more.

Continue reading

A visit to the Tanabe Ryokan in Hida-Takayama

Japan has hundreds of beautiful sights, famous landmarks, and unforgettable scenery but I have always argued that it is the little things that truly make this country such a special place to visit; the everyday things that surround you from morning to night. Whether it be the random (and sometimes unidentifiable) objects in the convenience store, the train attendant who bows to you as he leaves the carriage, or the old man in the bar who buys you a drink in an unspoken agreement that you will help him practice his English…  Everywhere I’ve been in Japan there is something that strikes me as ever-so-well-thought-out, wonderfully pleasant, and thoroughly Japanese. But nowhere is this more true than when visiting a Japanese Inn, or ryokan. The fusion of modern comfort and traditional beauty sweep through every detail of every room. Granted, there are beat down ryokans that have hardly changed in the last 50 years and there are frighteningly expensive ryokans that seem luxurious to the point of overkill, but they all have their strong points. And usually, it is the people who run these traditional inns that make the stay so special, certainly nothing could be more true about the Tanabe Ryokan in Takayama.

My room for the night. The floor is tatami, a woven straw mat, and in the alcove hangs a bit of traditional calligraphy and flower arrangement. But for those not interested in the traditional arts, a television sits just outside of the frame of this picture.

 

Rooms in ryokans are traditionally titled rather than numbered. The titles are almost always nature related; plants, trees, names of famous mountains or rivers, et cetera. The Tanabe has been kind enough to provide a transliteration as well as a number to each of their rooms for their visitors who haven't had time to master written Japanese.

 

Almost as famous as the geisha and Mt. Fuji, Japanese toilets are truly a sight to behold. Water sprays in all directions and there are often plenty of other features as well. Like heated seats. You'll notice the slippers that are provided just for when using the toilet!

 

Always the space-saving country. The bedding is kept in the closet during the day and laid out for you as you have dinner at night. This saves floor space and preserves the simple but elegant Japanese aesthetic.

 

In the closet awaits a light cotton Japanese robe, a yukata, which is traditionally worn to the bath and also to dinner. On top of it rest a towel and some toiletries, also for your visit to the bath.

 

The bathing facilities at most ryokans are lovely affairs. A place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. Although bathing etiquette may at first seem a bit daunting. The most important bit is to remember to thoroughly wash before getting in to bath itself. In the same room are showers (the Japanese traditionally show sitting down) and soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Then, after rinsing all the suds off, you can soak your bones in the rejuvenating waters.

 

A hanging curtain, noren, hangs outside each of the bath rooms. Once again, the Tanabe ryokan has taken pity on those who don't read Japanese and provided an English marking as well. Although, a nice general rule is "blue for boys, red for girls". Admittedly, it may take some time to get used to the idea of bathing in the same room as other men (or women) but its a custom that once enjoyed is hard to resist. Of course, if you're really not comfortable, there is a private shower and bath in each of the rooms.

 

Rest assured, I made sure that no one was around before barging in to the ladies' baths. At the Tanabe, as in many ryokans, the proprietors switch the men and women's baths daily so that everyone gets to experience the different baths. This one is made from cedar and gives off a gorgeous scent from the moment you enter the room.

 

Instead of the same old lobby, the Tanabe has a sitting room that looks out on a beautiful miniature Japanese garden. This is also where the free coffee and internet are to be found, and often where I spend my afternoons when I stay here. (with the company of a good book of course)

 

I'm sure that my mobile photos don't do the Tanabe ryokan justice but I hope that they will inspire you to visit for yourself. Lastly, I must plead ever-so-guilty to have not taken any photos of the exquisite dinners, a crime by my own admission; but also one more reason to make the journey and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

The Good Old Japanese Public Bathhouse

Written by InsideJapan Tours tour leader, Steve Parker

Many people have heard of the famous Japanese hot spring baths (onsen) – water heated geo-thermally and then pumped into often landscaped bathing areas to create the perfect way to relax – washing and then soaking away till as red and shrivelled as a pickled plum.

But less well-known are the urban bath houses known as sento. Although they have been in service for years, these establishments, usually fed with piping hot water from boiler rooms, became especially important in the post war years, when urban reconstruction left fewer families with their own baths.  Today – these social relics perhaps reflect more austere, impoverished times and so are for many, certainly those with a prudish outlook, a place not to be seen dead in.


For me however, moving back to Japan recently – in an unknown area on my own, winter snow carpeting the streets outside and with little money to spend on a Saturday night out on the town, my discovery of a local bath house was a joy.

I was quite desperate to get out of my small weekly mansion (i.e. short term rabbit hutch-sized flat) but given my extra tight budget, a night out drinking was a no go. I therefore decided to head out for a long night walk around the safe streets of Nagoya, yet barely 10 minutes later, I happened across a classic 400yen snippet of mid-20th century urban Japanese culture, namely the neighbourhood bath house.

Sadly these establishments are disappearing with declining popularity – their curtained entrances and tall chimney stacks replaced by car parks and anorexic apartment blocks. With their futures seemingly uncertain, part of their charm is that they are seldom renovated or updated in any way. They remain trapped in time, almost a mini museum of post war Japan. With snow crunching underfoot and a bitingly cold wind, it took little convincing that I should curtail my walk and go bathe with the locals!

On entering, it was shoes off then the usual struggle to fit them into the locker – 3 attempts and the door finally stayed closed. I paid my 400 yen to the elderly local woman – sat with her raised vantage point into both male and female changing areas! Then through the masculine blue curtain to the men’s changing area  – all as expected –  cigarette smoke, elderly men in thermal long-johns, bamboo strip matting on the floor, milk vending machine, shabby old lockers, Hitachi hairdryers from the 60s and surely one of  the world’s first all-in-one torture/massage chairs!


Next – a quick undress and into the bathing area, armed with small towel, razor and body soaps. Typically, this Sento offered the tiniest of plastic stools to sit on, barely 6 inches off the ground! One wall was lined with sets of archaic push top taps – one ice cold the other molten, and accompanying shower, running tepid water. My sink came in the form of a small yellow bowl – one of several strewn all around the bathing area. After scrubbing till I squeaked, a wide range of baths were on offer – a bog-standard hot bath at 42 degrees, jet bath, herbal bath, and then those for humans made of sterner stuff – the 16-degree cold bath and denkiburo electric bath!

Most baths I was more than happy to dip into, although the cold bath took a fair amount of puffing and blowing as I lowered myself in. The electric bath however – not for me! Not that I am aware of suffering from the following ailments – high blood pressure, blood disorders, heart conditions, susceptibility to fainting, nor was I recovering from any sickness – yet the list of warnings was enough to put me off. Oh, and of course the weird feeling of electric currents pulsating through the water and my body – expanding and contracting muscles twice a second in the process!

Everything was pretty much as I had expected and indeed wanted from my bath house experience though. No surprises in a very comfortable environment until…I looked around at the other bathers in the warm mist and noticed several tattooed bodies.

Unlike the feeble coin-sized excuse for a tattoo on my back, these where true markers of the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Ornate dragon designs draped over shoulders and down to the backside – rarely seen in public save for occasional festival events such as the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa, Tokyo.

I then realised that I had not seen any “tattoos forbidden” sign at the bath house entrance as is often found in these places, always prompting me to conceal my innocent yin-yang symbol from view, for fear of ejection. The designs on these guys were really incredible and although you don’t want mafia types catching you staring, it was hard not to admire the artistry in their designs and imagine the tear provoking pain endured whilst they were applied.

I got a great look at one design – Kannon – the Buddhist deity of mercy wrapped in a dragon. I then realised that the particular fellow had been scrubbing feverishly for what must have been half an hour, before sitting under his shower – head in hands with water rinsing away his…guilt? Self-loathing?  Stress? Terror? What had this man done or seen at work today?!

I left him to his apparent angst along with the other tattooed types and headed back to the cool of the changing room, where away from the din of running water, a friendly local guy struck up conversation. Thankfully, unembellished with body paint, and on realising I spoke Japanese, the kind Mr Yamada invited me for a bowl of hot noodles and some very powerful sweet potato vodka – a good way to maintain that warm glow for the walk back through the snow to my temporary home!

My night had turned out to be an unexpected surprise – Japan is so rewarding for those willing to take a chance and be a little spontaneous. I returned for the next 3 nights to the same bath house for my local experience, relaxation and a little edginess in form of my fellow Yakuza bathers.

A pre-soak soaking – hiking in the rain to Kurama Onsen

Sunday 1st November 2009: Another month, another bath! What better way to celebrate the turning of the calendar from October to November than a journey out to visit an onsen that has long captured my imagination and yet in 10 years of visiting Japan I had failed to venture to: Kurama. Located at the end of the Eiden electric railway, a rather cute tram-type train that winds its way out of Kyoto to the mountains in the north, Kurama Onsen is renowned in Kyoto for being a place of real natural beauty and a town where some of the most traditional aspects of Japanese culture are still thriving. Extremely popular in autumn-leaf season (usually the middle of November), Kurama is an escape from the busy streets of central Kyoto. Continue reading

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