10 Helpful Tips For When You Go Into a Japanese Onsen
Feel free to Benefit from All My Awkward Onsen Fails
Are you getting ready to take a trip to an Onsen Hot Spring in Japan?
As an onsen-loving Senpai, allow me to provide you a few tips on how to be absolutely prepared before braving the nakedness and initial awkwardness of your first Onsen adventure. Trust me, all of this knowledge has been gained by a multiple "learning experience" awkwardness. If you can benefit at all from my faux pas and fails, it will make all the red-faced moments worthwhile.
Your Ryokan (Japanese Inn) Concierge will check you in and show you to your room with warm smiles and kind attention to detail. However, since most Japanese have enjoyed onsen from birth, your host won't know what you don't know when faced with the challenge of “Yu” (the word used for Bath at the Ryokan (you can see the Hiragana Character for Yu ゆ on the Noren Curtains at the entrance to the bath area). So here are my tips on what to ask and how to prepare to conquer the awkward of naked and move on to revel in the healing power of Onsen.
1. Your Yukata, belt and over jacket are in the room closet.
Open the closet door and you will see a nicely folded Yukata Kimono, belt and over jacket. You can either change now and wear the ensemble to the Onsen area or you can carry it with you and change in the Onsen changing room. Either way is fine.
Tip: Make sure to wear the slippers provided to the Onsen room. I once had to walk back to my room through a crowded ryokan in my Yukata and business heels….chuckles galore.
2. Ask the concierge if the Onsen has shampoo and conditioner available inside. Your Yukata kit will come with a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small towel and larger bath towel. However, some places don't have conditioner, only something called “Rinse-in-Shampoo”. If your hair is fine and easily tangled, make sure you buy a small shampoo/conditioner kit at a nearby convenience store if your concierge says there is only “rinse” in the Onsen bath area.
Tip: Take your own brush in with you. There are brushes you can use at the sink area in the changing room but these are plastic and made for thicker hair. If you use “Rinse” and try to make do with the plastic brushes after your bath plan to be in there working out those tangles and knots for at least 30 minutes. Not fun.
3. Don't forget your 100 yen coin. Many onsen have lockers for you to leave your things while you bathe. Some of these require a coin (returned when you unlock it). The coin necessary is usually 10 yen or 100 yen. If you don't have one of these when you go in, it will mean going out half dressed or putting all your clothes back on to find some change. Take a 10 and 100 yen coin with you.
4. Remember you only take the little towel in with you to the bath area. You can use it to partially cover yourself while walking around between baths, put it on your head when in the bath (or far to the side…NEVER in the bath), and use it as a sitting cloth in the sauna or steam room. Even when there are towels laid out in the sauna, use your towel to sit on just to be proper. Some other patrons sit right on the big yellow towels. This is exactly another excellent reason why I always put my little towel down before I sit.
5. Don't read in the Sauna. It is usually against the rules and it also makes you lose track of time. If you get too engrossed in a book, you might end up fainting after you leave (I fainted and then threw up everywhere which was something I definitely don't want to repeat). Keep your sauna time under 10 minutes since you are in a new place, with new food, probably exhausted and therefore much more likely to pass out.
6. Don't let any tattoo (no matter how small) show. The other patrons know that tattoos in Onsen and public baths are an absolute no-no. Bad patrons will complain to the management that they now want their tattooed friends to be allowed in and good patrons will complain to management that they are afraid other patrons will now want to have their tattooed friends allowed in. Do you get it? Ink and onsen don't match in Japan for reasons that include the possibility of attracting the “wrong” crowd and thereby going out of business. It is a serious issue so just make sure everyone in your onsen entourage is ink-free.
Tip: Best to consider this a dress-code issue. It is not discrimination, it is simply a dress-code the establishments need to enforce to keep their customer base happy and worry-free.
7. There is always a toilet inside the dressing area and usually not inside the onsen area. Make sure to visit the ladies room before you go into the onsen area to avoid having to come back in, dripping wet, to use the restroom.
8. Make sure to wash before using anything. Take the full shower before you even go into the sauna. Post sauna, it is okay to simple rinse well before entering the bath. Be careful when showering not to shoot the lady sitting at the shower station behind you. Sometimes the water strength is enough to send shower water all the way over the little wall that separates the stations. Keep your shower head pointed down and you’ll be fine.
9. After your bath, use your little towel to pat off excess water before making your way back to the locker. You’ll notice the floor is pretty dry and this is because everyone avoids walking to the lockers dripping wet.
10. Don't scratch in the bath. Oooh, that water feels soooo good. It is so tempting to scratch your skin under the water. Everyone tries not to do this in order to keep the onsen water as clean and fresh as possible. After the bath you can go to the shower station and scratch to your heart’s content. Remember, sauna space and onsen ( all the various baths) are shared so you want to leave as little DNA there as possible. Everyone cooperates to make the onsen experience for all healthy, refreshing and healing.
Former Deep Japan Writer