Onsen is one of those famous Japanese traditions that can make the Western visitor a little nervous.
For those who don’t know, onsen can be translated as hot spring. Although it often incorporates the idea of bathing into to the word, not just the hot spring itself. It’s a communal hot spring bath used to relax and unwind.
Communal bathing has been a common practice throughout Japanese history but it was lost in most Western countries. So, some visitors are a little wary when mentioning onsen. I admit, I was one of those people. Bathing has always been a personal and private thing for me.
I live in Oita Prefecture which is famous for onsen. But my first onsen was not in Oita. Instead, I went across the border to Kumamoto Prefecture to a little onsen town near Mt. Aso called Kurokawa.
Kurokawa is a picturesque little town. The whole point of its existence is for onsen. The thing I liked most about Kurokawa is that it is still traditional. Mass corporations and capitalism haven’t taken it over – trying to sell you kitschy souvenirs at every turn. It feels like you’re stepping back in time to a traditional resort town. The streets are lined with small shops and cafes. And of course, tons of ryokans with an onsen attached to each one.
How to Onsen
There are some rules for onsen. So, how do you onsen?
First thing to note is that onsens are separated by gender. There is a female bath and a male bath.
Okay, so you are in your appropriate bath section, what now?
1. Undress. There is a changing area where you can strip down and store your clothes, towel, and bag.
2. Wash. Before you can go into the bath, you must wash yourself. The bath is for relaxing, not washing. And since the water is shared by everyone, washing any grime off yourself is the courteous thing to do. There is usually shampoo, conditioner, and body wash available to use. Some people will use the onsen as their daily wash and shampoo/condition their hair. I didn’t. The main reason was that I still had a full day ahead of me and didn’t want to mess up my hair and makeup. The point is to make sure your body is scrubbed clean.
3. Relax. It’s time to step in and enjoy the water. Do not bring your towel into the water. Also, if you have long hair, pin it up so that it doesn’t drag in the water. Like the washing before getting in, we want to keep the water clean.
4. Dry off. When you feel like you’ve been in the water long enough, go back to the changing room. Onsens use water that is from natural hot springs. While you can rinse yourself off after soaking, it’s not necessary. The minerals in the water are good for your skin so just go back to the changing room to dry off and get changed back into your clothes.
Tattoos in Onsen
I’m often asked about the rumour that you can’t go into an onsen if you have a tattoo. It is true for the most part. You can find onsens that will outright say, “NO TATTOOS”. However, I’ve heard many stories of people going into onsens with visible tattoos and not having problems. Japan still holds a stereotype and prejudice against those who have tattoos but they also understand that foreigners have different cultures and ideas surrounding tattoos. I personally believe times are changing and Japanese people are becoming more welcoming of tattoos within their own society but I’ll save that conversation for another time. My tattoos are small and can be easily covered – even while nude. I just wear my hair in a certain way and no one will see it.
My Feelings about Onsen
I’m still unsure how I feel about onsen. It was a little awkward for me. This was my first time and I was alone. I had read about onsens before going so I was trying to figure everything out in actuality. It wasn’t the relaxing bath experience that the Japanese talk about. I was overthinking everything I was doing. But now that I’ve done it once, I feel more prepared to try it again. I think onsen is something that grows on you over time.
Have you been to an onsen in Japan? What was your experience like?
Much love and happy travels,
xo Meggie Kay