The first rule of onsens: you have to get naked to have one. Don't blush!
An onsen, for those who don’t know about this particularly Japanese tradition, is a natural springs bath. It’s often hot, due to volcanic rocks heating the water – and even though you have to get bare to have one, it’s utterly delightful.
They are found all over Japan, and can be ritzy spas or simple rock pools by the sea. They share one characteristic though – it’s communal bathing of the highest order.
Onsens are almost always done in the nude. There’s no bathing suits allowed in most of them – and thus it’s usually a single sex experience (men have their own baths away from women). It’s one of those odd experiences of being naked as a jaybird in front of complete strangers, and no one bats an eyelid.
However onsens have their own particular set of rules, which are a little confusing if you’ve never done one before. It’s easy to think that there are all kinds of ways to mess up having an onsen, which can be off-putting – so here are the rules so you can enjoy this particularly Japanese experience without feeling too nervous...
1/ Towels are your friend
You’ll need two – one bath towel, and one smaller towel to take into the onsen with you. Your hotel might supply these towels, or you can rent them from onsen if you need to. The tiny towel is a modesty towel you can use if you’re feeling shy, but it’s really no bigger than a long flannel. Leave the bath towel in the changing area with your clothes.
2/ Make sure you spot the right coloured curtain
It’s red for women, blue for men. Or there's a male/female picture. Make sure you’re in the right place!
3/ Shoes off at the first step
Take your shoes off and stow them in the shelves before you step into the changing area. You can see where this is by looking for the rack for shoes, and the little wooden ‘duck board’ which is often placed there to encourage shoe removal. Or there's a bench to sit down to slip your shoes off. If in doubt, always remove your shoes before going any further than the door.
4/ Get to the lockers. Get naked
This is the moment. Find a locker (or basket) to store your clothes. Take them all off. No jewellery should be worn in the onsen, in case the minerals in the water spoil any precious metals, so take off necklaces, rings, etc, too. Put everything in the locker/basket, including your big towel. The only thing you can take into the onsen apart from your small towel would be your locker key if there is one.
One hard and fast rule – no tattoos are allowed. If you have a tattoo, many onsen simply won’t let you bathe. So check first, or cover them up if you can.
5/ Go and scrub at the shower station
In the onsen, there will probably be a set of showers, with shampoo, body soap, etc. Plus a little stool and bucket. The showers are usually quite low down so sit on the stool, and wash your hair and body with the soap. Scrub yourself clean and rinse off! Try not to splash the person next door. Get all that soap and shampoo off. You have to be so clean you squeak.
6/ Leave it clean
Once you’re clean and showered, rinse off your stool and tidy up the shower area. If the onsen is an older-style bath, you might have to wash using water from the bath. If so, sluice yourself down but make sure no dirty water goes into the onsen bath. You can also use your little towel to scrub yourself if you like. Just keep that little towel away from the onsen bath water too.
7/ Get in!
Now you’re all clean, you can enter the onsen bath. If it’s a hot one, step in and get used to the heat. It goes without saying that you don’t dive in, or swim, or chuck yourself in. Try not to disturb anyone else in the onsen. If it’s too hot, sit on the steps or side and slowly ease in. Don’t let your hair touch the water (tie it up if you wear it long) and keep your little towel on the side of the bath.
8/ And… relax
Typically, we spent a good 10-15 mins luxuriating in the different baths. Some women literally stepped in, sat for 2-3 mins, then got out again. It depends on what you want – a relaxing soak, or a quick bathe. The water is hot (think the hottest bath you can run) so maybe not a good idea if you have any health problems. There can be baths of different temperatures, a cold bath, baths outside... it all depends on the nature of the volcanic water coming up from below ground.
9/ Dry out
Once you get out, you can rinse again at the shower station if you like. Leave it clean and tidy as before. Then wipe off as much water as you can from your hair and body with your little towel before you leave the bathing area. Once back in the locker area, you can dry off properly with the big towel. Some onsens have nice dressing areas where you can blow dry your hair, do your make-up, etc, which is a nice touch.
10/ And that’s it!
Get dressed, leave the locker area, and put your shoes on. You’ll leave feeling amazing, we can guarantee it, and also pleased as punch that you tried something so different. We felt like different people... Calm, chilled, clean.
Of course there’s no pics from any onsen experiences – cameras, phones, etc, aren’t allowed in, as you’d expect. So instead, we've used the official photos from the Dormy Inn, Takamatsu, where we stayed and onsen-d every day!
We hope you enjoy your first onsen as much as we did!