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How To Take Onsen – 10 Steps To Japanese Hot Springs Bliss

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The man wades over to me, sits down in the water so close that he is but mere inches away, grins, and says in heavily Japanese-accented but understandable English “first time Onsen?” I nod, smile, and confirm that I am indeed an Onsen virgin. He laughs, and for ten minutes we sit in the near-boiling water talking about Japan, skiing, his passion for Keiko drumming, and home.

Despite my efforts to suppress it, occasionally the thought does force itself to the surface; I am alone and completely naked with another man in a Japanese hot spring bath.

What Is Japanese Onsen?

The Japanese hot springs bath or Onsen is one of the great staples of Japanese culture. Gifted with more than 4000 natural hot springs created by volcanic activity, Japan is the hot spring enthusiast’s dream destination. The natural hot spring water is rich in sulfur and sodium chloride, and it is thought to heal aches and pains, as well as help with conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.

While visiting an Onsen is an essential part of any visit to Japan, the Japanese have their own ways of doing things. Few countries have so many unwritten and sometimes unspoken rules of etiquette as Japan. On the surface, modern-day Japan may not seem much different from most western countries, but here good manners are important, and there are rules about everything from how to drink tea to how to use your chopsticks. And visiting an Onsen is certainly no exception!

For instance are tattoos strictly forbidden in Onsen. The reason is that in Japan tattoos are associated with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. If you have a small one, you may be able to cover it up, but with a large tattoo, you will not be allowed into any Onsen in Japan!

I don’t have any tattoos, but I was still a little nervous as I readied myself to step into the Onsen, not knowing quite what to expect. I had done my research, and I had memorized a step-by-step plan. I was ready to step through the curtain, and if all went well, nobody would ever know I wasn’t an Onsen veteran.

How To Take A Japanese Bath –

The 10 Step Guide On How To Take An Onsen

Step 1.
As you enter the changing area, there will be a basket or a locker for your belongings.

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YES, there it is. My plan works!

Step 2.
Put all your belongings and clothes in the basket or locker. Strip down naked, except for the small handkerchief that you can use to cover your private parts.

Hmm, well yes I am now naked, but where is the darn handkerchief? It turns out I should have brought the handkerchief from our room!  Ah well, a quick change and a sprint to the room fixed that problem. If you take a public Onsen, remember to bring or buy a handkerchief at the reception!

Step 3.
Now you can enter the bathing area. Along the wall, there will be plastic stools, shower hoses, and washbasins.

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Check! Yes, this is proceeding exactly according to the master plan.

Step 4.
Wash and scrub yourself down thoroughly while sitting on the stool. Make sure to rinse off ALL the soap before entering the hot spring.

Step 5.

The hot spring water can be scalding, so take it slow getting in. Do NOT bring your handkerchief with you into the water. Put it on the side of the bath, and make sure it never touches the bath water. Or go the traditional route, and put it on your head while in the water.

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Feeling self-conscious enough in my naked state, I decided that putting the handkerchief on my head probably won’t help, so I opted for placing it by the side of the bath.

Step 6.
Do NOT pee in the bath! Japanese Onsen use chemicals that color the water purple when it comes in contact with urine!

Yikes! I’m not in the habit of peeing in public bathwater, but knowing this made me very motivated not to leak as much as a single drop.

Step 7.
Soak and relax in the hot spring waters healing properties.

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Ahh, this is nice! I’m finally relaxing; the hot water is loosening all my tense muscles… Hang on, isn‘t that naked Japanese guy coming awfully close?

Step 8.
When you get out of the water, do not shower. To preserve the healing properties of the Onsen you should just dry yourself gently off.

Oh crap, now you tell me! I forgot this the first time, and had to go into the water for a second dip!

Step 9.
Dry yourself off with your handkerchief before leaving the bathing area and entering the changing room.

What, I am supposed to get dry using this stamp-sized towel! Apparently, you can have a second larger towel in the changing room, but I was only given the handkerchief.

Step 10.
Go into the changing room, find your basket and get dressed.

Yes, I had done it. Following my now proven clearly absolute genius plan, I had survived my first Onsen, without embarrassing myself completely. I had even had what the Japanese call a “hadaka no tsukiai” (naked communion), a term that describes that certain level of communication that can only be experienced when it’s all hanging out.

That night at dinner I meet my Japanese Onsen buddy again. He hands me his business card, and I enter my phone number and address into his phone. With great enthusiasm, he looks up my address on Google maps, and we both stare at a pinpoint on the map about a billion miles away.

If he ever comes to experience the northern lights, he says he will look me up. I say he is welcome anytime, and I mean it. I guess we are friends now, after all, we have been naked together.


⇒ We took this onsen in Takayama city, at the Yamakyu Ryokan. Check out what else Takayama has to offer in our ultimate guide on things to do in Takayama

⇒ Besides Onsen, Japan is packed with great things to do and stunning places to visit. Read our ultimate 2-week Japan Itinerary to find out more about things to do in Japan

Where To Stay In Takayama

Yamakyu Ryokan

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The lovely Yamakyu Ryokan

We stayed at Yamakuy Ryokan, and loved it! It is such a nice old Japanese guest house and compared with almost all other Ryokans in Japan actually pretty reasonably priced.

It was the cheapest Ryokan that we could find in Japan. We paid approximately 150 USD for two people, which included a very nice traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast. This Ryokan also has its own private onsen which we could use for free.
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⇒ Read our post about our stay at Yamakyu Ryokan

K`s House
We spent two nights at K’s  House – one of the best guesthouses we have ever stayed at! It is nice, clean and cozy, with excellent service and hospitality from the staff. We had a private room with a private bathroom and paid 75 USD per night for two people. They also have 4-bed dorm rooms for about 25 USD.

It has the perfect location, right in the middle of downtown Takayama so you can walk to all the main sights and museums of Takayama.
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Travel Guides

We used Lonely Planet`s Japan Travel Guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below which will take you to Amazon.com (affiliate links):



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Hover over the picture below, and press the red “Save” button that pops up:

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How you ever been to a Japanese bathhouse/ Onsen? Would you have a problem bathing naked with strangers? 😉 Please leave a comment in the comment area below! If you liked this article and found it useful, please share it on social media. Thank you! 🙂

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Written by Espen Egeland

Espen, a Norwegian born travel nerd, got his start as an independent traveler at age 19, when he packed his backpack and bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia in search of adventure. Since then he has explored more than thirty countries across six continents. He holds a master's degree in computer science, but his true passion is photography, filmmaking and sharing his love of travel. In 2014, while on a year-long trip across South - East Asia, he co-founded the travel blog Nerd Nomads and since then he's been a full-time traveler. See our about page for more about Espen.

35 Comments

  1. Great write up about onsens. I really wish I knew what I was doing when I went to my first one 2 years ago in Hakone. Looks like Takayama also has some nice onsens.

    The whole bathing area was a bit awkward for me.

    One thing that I would add here is that there is a technique of going from different baths of higher temperature to lower and eventually cold temperatures – at least that’s what I observed. The cold one was really hard to jump into though.

    The onsen in Hakone also had a sauna as well which I’m sure should be involved in the mix of temperatures.

    Reply
    • Thanks Will!

      Honestly I was quite nervous going in to my first Onsen. The pictures here are from a small private Onsen that we did later (no photography in the public ones). But usually public Onsens are pretty popular and busy, so it is nice to have an idea of what to expect going in 🙂

      Great tip about changing baths so that the body can gradually adapt to the temperature!

      Reply
  2. I’d done a lot of research on onsens before going to Japan. But when I went to my first one, it was quite different and took me off guard for a bit. But I played it cool 😉

    Reply
  3. Japan is high on my wish list. I’ll have to make sure I add this to my ‘things to do’ when I hopefully get there one day!

    Reply
  4. The one thing that terrifies me the most about visiting Japan is all the unstated etiquette. I feel like no matter how much research I do, there will be so much that slips through the cracks. At least with this post I can rest assured that if I visit an onsen I’ll know what to do! Thanks for linking up to #WeekendWanderlust!

    Reply
    • Hi Jessie!

      I know, it freaked us a out a bit as well before we went, and despite our best efforts, I am sure we made lots of blunders along the way. But the Japanese are really friendly and they understand that foreigners don’t know Japanese etiquette, so don’t worry to much about it.

      Reply
  5. It sounds like a very strange, but interesting experience. I think us English people are particularly bad at this sort of thing, but I would definitely give it a go.

    Reply
    • Hi Katie,

      It was actually strange how fast you get used to bathing naked with other people. I guess since it is so natural to the Japanese, it just rubs off on you. When in Rome and all that you know.. 😉

      Reply
    • You need not be intimidated. Just follow what the locals are doing and if you are in doubt, just ask. The Japanese are very friendly people!

      Reply
      • Absolutely right! Like Andy says, the Japanese understand that we don’t know everything, and are very happy to help. So don’t let that stop you from going to Japan 🙂

        Reply
  6. Great post – I didn’t know anything about a Japanese Onsen until now. This is the 2nd Japan post I’ve read tonight and I’m really itching to go soon! Thanks for linking up to #WeekendWanderlust 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Ashey!

      Thanks for commenting! We became huge Japan fans during our trip, and hope to visit again in the not too distant future. There is just so mucht to see and experience, delicious food and very friendly people. It’s also an easy country to travel. The only negative is the costs, which we will write about soon.

      Reply
    • Thank you Amanda!

      Yes, they absolutely are separated by gender. One Onsen will always have different baths for men and women.

      Since the baths may be slightly different, sometimes they rotate the baths by gender. That way if you take Onsen in the morning you may be in one bath, and in the afternoon you may be using the other one. But men and women are never together, unless you hire a private Onsen. But that is usually only offered at high end Ryokans that are very expensive.

      Reply
  7. Once I took my clothes off, I had no problem free balling it. I was the only foreigner in the onsen I went to in Osaka and it was abundantly clear because I was the tannest one. I was worried the bandaids covering my tattoo would fall off (one started to) but in the end, I was okay.
    I also went to a pretty gimmicky one as well. Spa World, look that place up.

    Reply
    • He he, yeah we foreigners definitely stand out in an Onsen. No place to hide without clothes on 😉

      Just looked up Spa World and that place looks pretty out there. Wish we had gone as we have a blogpost about Crazy Japan coming up, and that place looks as it would have fit right in. Ah well, next time 🙂

      Reply
  8. I’ve been to Japan but never to an Onsen. I think the idea of bathing naked would take a bit of getting used to for the reserved Brit in me! 😉 Great article and fantastic photos though 🙂

    Reply
  9. So cool! I would love to visit Japan, it is one of my top places to visit in the future! It would be super cool to experience the Onsen! Thanks so much for linking up with #WeekendWanderlust!

    Reply
    • Hi Lauren!

      Onsens are really everywhere in Japan, so if you go you’ll have plenty of oppertunities to try it.

      Btw, loved your rafting post, reminded me of rafting in Norway 🙂

      Reply
  10. I would love to visit Japan one day, but I don’t see myself going into one of these Onsen baths. Thanks for linking up to #WeekendWanderlust.

    Reply
  11. This looks like a must try it at once type of thing while in Japan! I visited hot springs before, but have never gotten into them, not much of a bath type person. I’d still give this a shot while in Japan (and yeah, I’ll be sure not to pee even a droplet)! 😀

    Reply
    • Ha ha, yes I kept looking for that purple dye to make an appearance, ready to make a very quick escape. Thankfully it never happened 🙂 Thanks for reading, Katie!

      Reply
  12. Hot water is my happy place…so experiencing Onsen is one of the things I’m most looking forward to about Japan. I’m so glad to have read through this great step-by-step guide. I wish I’d found something similar before we tackled the haman in Istanbul!!

    Reply
  13. I wish I would have seen this before my trip. My friend planned everything and she filled me in the day of and she made the towel sound bigger. I would also add that ladies clean the men’s locker and shower. All I had on was a sock when she came in and when I tried to cover up with a large towel she got upset. She was very polite as long as I followed the rules I didn’t know.

    Reply
    • Hehe, I sympathize Gene 🙂

      Taking an Onsen for the first time is definitely one of those situations that really magnifies the cultural differences. And being naked at the time doesn’t exactly make navigating the unspoken rules of Japanese hot baths any easier 😉

      Makes for a good story, though. Thanks a lot for sharing!

      Reply
  14. Hi Erin,

    Hehe, glad you agree about the towel head thing! 😀

    Have a great trip to Japan and be sure to enjoy the Onsen!

    -Espen

    Reply
  15. Thanks a lot Espen,
    Absolutely loved your 10 steps and made me laugh, slightly reminding me of my first time.

    Mine has now been a while ago (about 13 years ago) and was a bit different from yours as I had gone with my Japanese father in law 🙂 🙂 hahaha, sweet memories…

    I was now looking for a quick reference guide for a friend going to Japan for the first time and this was just perfect!!!
    Thanks again for putting it down so nicely 😉

    Best,
    Raffa

    Reply
    • Thank you, Raffa! I’m really happy to hear that you enjoyed the article, and I hope your friend finds it helpful.

      We’re heading back to Japan very soon, so I am looking forward to a lot more Onsen experiences 🙂

      Best,

      Espen

      Reply

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