A Beginner’s Guide to the Japanese Onsen

If there’s anything that worried us more than embarrassing ourselves in Japan, it was doing so while naked. We knew we had to experience onsen, a Japanese bathing ritual, but as we searched for nearby locations, it all became very real. Would we mess up the shower part? Would we be gawked at for breaking unspoken rules? Would we be able to handle the heat? Several very thorough Google searches later, we left our Kyoto Airbnb and headed to a mid-grade place that’s popular with locals.

In Japan, there are two ways to get the onsen experience – volcanic hot springs in the calm of nature and public bath houses called sento. High-end hotels sometimes offer the experience, too, often in a more private setting. Both the natural and manmade versions have healing powers and are thought to alleviate aches, pains and other health issues. Men and women almost always bathe separately, making them a common place for same-sex parties to commune – friends, family and even coworkers. Bathing suits are not permitted and tattoos are often forbidden, as they’re associated with the Japanese mafia.

In the end, the onsen turned out to be one our favorite experiences in Japan. Here’s a play-by-play of our evening there so you can take the plunge in confidence.

First, we registered at the desk. Donning sandals and our most comfortable clothing, we entered the onsen and removed our shoes. At the desk, we signed waiver forms and were given two towels – a larger bath towel and a smaller towel known as a “modesty towel.” Most places provide the towels with the entrance fee, but sometimes you need to bring your own or purchase them at a vending machine. Sometimes you also need to bring your own soap or also purchase that at a vending machine – we were assured there would be soap inside the washing area. (A Google search should give you an idea of what to expect at the place you’re visiting.)

Then, we went our separate ways. Men went to one side of the building and women went to the other. The doorways were marked with colored curtains – red for women and blue for men. Inside the changing room, people were grooming themselves at the vanities and walking around confidently in the nude – it was pretty obvious there was no need to be shy. I (Stacey), chose a locker in the corner and stripped down, leaving my larger towel in the locker and taking the smaller one with me. The locker key had a rubber bracelet attached to it that I slipped on. At some smaller bath houses, you simply leave your things in a basket or a cubby.

Next up: the washing ritual. I followed the example of others and headed into the washing area – it looked like several long rows of vanities with plastic stools and buckets. I took a seat and used the handheld shower head to wash myself with soap thoroughly, making sure not to splash those around me. Many women were exfoliating with the small towel and taking their time. When I was done, I rinsed off the stool and walked over to the bathing area to soak.

Now for the fun part. At the onsen I visited, there were four pools. Three were inside – a cold pool, a mineral pool and a hot pool. The hottest pool, designed to look and feel like a natural hot spring, was located outside. There were also two smaller baths outside for one or two people. I took turns dipping between each pool, keeping the towel and my hair out of the water, which is frowned upon. (If you do accidentally drop or dip your towel into the water, wring it out outside the bath.) Most everyone kept their towel on top of their heads while soaking, but some rested theirs next to the bath.

The grand finale: the sauna. When I was done soaking, I entered the sauna for a little bit – but I didn’t last long. I took one final dip in the cold pool before drying myself off to the best of my ability with the modesty towel and returning to the changing room. Most bath houses discourage you from showering after you soak, as the minerals are good for your skin. However, if you have sensitive skin, or if you simply prefer to wash off, it’s perfectly acceptable to take one last shower. Back at my locker, I used the the larger bath towel to completely dry myself off before getting dressed.

When I emerged back into the common area, I found Jake sleepy eyed and beaming, enjoying an ice-cold Japanese beer at the bar. Needless to say, we slept great that night.

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