What are natural spring hot baths (known as “onsen” in Japanese) and why are there so many of them in Japan? That’s the question tourists often ask. One of the amazing things about Japan is that an entire “onsen culture” has flourished for hundreds of years, ever since the locals realized that the nation was literally dotted with thousands of natural hot springs that made bathing a luxury.
But it’s much more than a luxury; bathing in natural hot springs can be a smart way to totally relax and boost one’s health at the same time. The waters in hot springs contain dozens of curative minerals and other substances that help the skin, respiratory system, and mental wellness. There’s really no end to the incredibly healthful properties of Japanese onsen or natural hot spring baths.
What is a Ryokan?
So, what exactly is a Japanese ryokan and why do tourists flock to them? A ryokan is simply the Japanese word for a public inn, but specifically a traditional inn rather than a modern motel.
The country’s ryokans are the best places to enjoy a natural hot bath. Because Japan is located atop a geographic point that contains vast amounts of steam and natural heat, the waters that bubble to the surface are extremely hot and loaded with minerals.
In Western nations, some hot springs exist, and a few are even popular as hot baths and health spas. But in Japan, the situation is different because there are literally thousands of these incredibly hot water streams flowing to the earth’s surface. The form pools or are caught in specially designed tubs so people can take advantage of the therapeutic effects of mineral baths.
Key Points of Onsen Etiquette (Proper Way to Bathe in an Onsen)
As is the case with most other elements of Japanese culture, there are many social etiquette rules for bathing in a hot spring onsen located within a ryokan. Unlike public hot tubs and therapeutic springs in other places, the Japanese have developed a specialized set of social rules for the use of onsen baths, whether located at ryokans or as stand-alone facilities.
While onsen etiquette varies slightly from city to city, here are the most common rules for visitors who stay at traditional Japanese ryokans and use the onsen baths:
It is not necessarily important from an etiquette perspective, but you should know what kind of onsen you’re using. There are natural onsen, where the water is from a hot spring in the ground. Also, many facilities that don’t have access to a hot spring will heat water and then add natural minerals to it, so that it smells and “feels” like a natural onsen. Ask a Japanese person at the onsen what type of facility it is.
The word for “natural onsen” sounds like “ten-nen-onsen,” sort of easy to remember because it rhymes. If you ask the attendant, “Ten-nen-onsen des ka?” (Is this a natural spring onsen?) they will respond with a smile and “hai” for yes, or they’ll correct you and say something like, “eee-ei” for no.
Rule 1: Bring proper supplies to the onsen
This includes money for small snacks or things you forget. Most large and small onsen facilities have a kiosk where you can purchase underwear, soap, shampoo, razors, shaving cream, etc. Expect to pay about 600 yen, plus or minus, to take a typical bath at an onsen.
You’ll also need a large bath towel for drying after the session, two “washcloth” towels (one for cleaning yourself before entering the bath, and one for sitting on or covering yourself while in the bath area), clean clothes for after-bath, and an extra bottle of drinking water because you will be thirsty, especially after your first trip to an onsen. The hot water has a tendency to dehydrate you quickly.
Rule 2: Know about entering, paying, undressing, and cleaning
Put your shoes in a small cubicle locker in the front and remove the key. Don’t lose it! You’ll need it to retrieve your shoes after the session. Pay the attendant or place coins in the vending machine, depending what the setup is. Enter the men’s or women’s side of the facility. Know how to use the facility.
Select a locker, remove your clothes and place them in it. Put the clothing locker and shoe locker keys around your wrist or in the provided plastic bucket.
There are always scales in this area, and Japanese love to weight themselves before and after visiting a public bath. No one knows why, but if you want to “do as the Japanese do,” hop on the scale and make a mental note of your weight. Due to dehydration, you might weight quite a bit less when you’re done.
Before you enter the shower, don’t forget to splash some water from the bucket onto your body for a general rinse. This is more of a custom than a hygienic act, so be sure to abide by this etiquette rule before showering.
Go to the “shower area” which is really a group of semi-private cubicles with a small faucet near the floor, a wooden stool for you to sit on, and a little shelf for your shampoo, soap and other items. Wash thoroughly (men typically shave while in this area) using the soap, shampoo, and body cleansing towel.
To apply soap and remove it, you’ll either have a bucket for pouring warm water over yourself, or there will be a removable shower head. After you are thoroughly clean, rinse all the soap off with the bucket or shower head. Just to be sure (because the Japanese are sticklers about this) rinse twice to get every single soap bubble off your skin and out of your hair.
Rule 3: Choose sauna or bath or both (or neither)
Some Japanese like to use both the dry/steam sauna and the immersive bath (which is actually the “onsen” part of the facility), but you can do it any way you want. For tourists, if you only do one thing, do the bath so you’ll get see what the onsen experience is all about. But if you have time, try spending a few minutes in the steam room before cooling off and heading to the hot bath.
If you are uncomfortable being naked, remember that the Japanese have been at this for more than a thousand years, and they just don’t care about nudity as much as Westerners do, especially among same-sex bathers.
If you’re in Japan for a longish stay and are taking an onsen bath every day or even twice per day, remember that many Japanese people just use the facility for showering and cleaning themselves, opting not to use the bath or sauna unless they have extra time to spare. Some business professionals use the shower facility in the morning before work, then return in the evening for a long, relaxing bath and sauna.
Rule 4: Use the sauna correctly
No bare bottoms when sitting or lying down in the sauna! That’s the strictest rule and it’s in place for (obvious) hygienic reasons. Use your small towel for sitting. If you lie down on the steps (which is common), place the towel under your buttocks.
Avoid moving around quickly in the sauna, and break yourself into the heat slowly by remaining on the lowest step for a few minutes before moving up to the next one, where it will be considerably hotter. Feel free to enter into conversation with people who appear to be willing, but don’t bother anyone who has closed eyes and is lying down.
As a foreigner traveling in Japan, you will likely encounter many Japanese people who want to chat with you during your sauna or bath time. They’ll often use basic or fractured English. Do your best to use as much Japanese as you know, if you know any. They’ll do their level best to ask you how you enjoy Japan, the bath, the city you’re in, the food, and all the other common questions. This is what travel is all about and the Japanese are some of the friendliest people in the world.
Remember, most sauna rooms will have televisions built into the wall and water fountains near the door. You’ll likely need a drink of cool water, but will probably not want to watch the local news.
After you’ve had enough heat, leave the sauna room and splash some cool water on yourself. There will be a sink nearby for this very reason. And if you can stand it, take a quick dip in the cold tub. Some people sing the praises of the health benefits of doing this between the sauna and the hot bath. Suit yourself, but know that it is not a requirement to take a cold dip. However, it is sort of a rule to splash cool water on yourself, presumably to remove perspiration that has built up in the hot sauna room.
Rule 5: No jumping, splashing or putting your towel in the water
These are the “big 3” rules and are strictly followed by everyone in the onsen tub. Japanese respect water as if it is a life force, so visitors and tourists should do the same. It is alright to chit-chat with others who seem willing, but as in the hot sauna, don’t bother those with eyes closed. Use your towel as a small pillow on the edge of the bath, or place it over your head. DO NOT put it in the water for any reason. This is perhaps the most important etiquette rule for onsen users.
Expect the water temperature to be close to or above 39 degrees Celsius or 102 degrees Fahrenheit. When you have had enough heat and relaxation, slowly exit the bath, head to the pre-shower rinsing area and pat yourself dry. Then go back to the locker room and get dressed. Don’t forget to weigh yourself if you want to see the effects of extreme heat on the human body. Most adults who drink a moderate amount of liquids during the sauna/bath will notice a weight loss of between 200 and 700 grams.
Many onsen facilities have rooms where people can rest, read, watch TV, talk or just hang out after they’re done with their baths. This is an ideal time to enjoy a drink or small snack before heading back to your hotel and preparing for an evening out or just going to bed for the night.
What is the Japanese “Onsen Culture”?
The intense seismic activity below the earth’s surface in Japan is the reason there are so many onsen baths in the nation. Over the centuries, the people have created what some call an “onsen culture” that consists of the etiquette rules listed above as well as a general attitude about therapeutic hot baths in general. Note that there are also non-naturally heated baths called “sento.”
These baths sometimes appear identical to onsen, but it’s important to remember that sento baths are usually housed in tubs and are warmed with electricity or gas power. Most hot tubs and public hot baths in Western nations’ health clubs are quite similar to sento baths.
Many users of onsen tout the “natural” heat and the abundance of healthful minerals in the water. Compared to sento baths, onsen natural hot springs can be more refreshing and better for physical and mental health.
The State of Japan’s Onsen Culture Today
There are more than 3,000 onsen sites officially recognized by the Japanese government. To earn the designation, an spring must contain one or more natural minerals and flow out of its source at a temperature greater than 77 F or 25 C degrees. This is actually on the low side because onsen water is typically much hotter than that.
In fact, there are several areas in Japan where the water comes out of the source spring at temperatures above the boiling point! In those cases, of course, the owner of the bath facility will cool the water before allowing guests to use it.
Even though many visitors to Japan are a bit uncomfortable at first with the no-clothing situation at onsen baths, they get used to it pretty quickly when they realize how comfortable the Japanese are with natural nudity, particularly within single-gender public baths. Public bathing is a Japanese tradition, so there’s no need to feel self-conscious at an onsen or sento bath facility.
Not only is group bathing accepted in Japan, but it’s also actually encouraged for reasons of emotional bonding between the people. And there’s something uniquely relaxing about stretching out in a very warm body of water that’s heated with the earth’s natural energies. For more than a thousand years, the Japanese have been relaxing this way. To truly understand the culture, visitors should try out an onsen hot springs bath at least once.
The Japanese firmly believe that when people socialize in the public onsen bath, without clothes, they develop a special type of kinship that is impossible in the “outside” world.
Unlike most Western cultures, the Japanese view water with a special reverence, which is why the onsen culture will likely never die. Before entering shrines for sacred ceremonies, Japanese people cleanse their mouths and hands with pure water. Indeed, dozens of ancient local legends recount has gods who came to earth had to clean themselves with water after being “contaminated” by the land.
Because of the close connection of religion and water, many hot spring onsen in Japan are located close to temples and shrines. The future of onsen in Japan is secure. The use of natural springs for therapeutic bathing has even increased in recent years as scientific fact backs up the claims about the healthful nature of mineral-rich water for the human body and mind.
Hot Springs Cooking?
Yes, there is such a thing as “onsen cooking,” which comes as a surprise to many tourists who visit ryokans while in Japan. The Japanese are brilliant when it comes to energy conservation, and using the earth’s heat to prepare food is just one example.
The most common treat you are likely to see at an onsen is called an onsen boiled egg, known to the Japanese as “onsen tamago.” Some springs with very hot water sources use the heat for more “advanced” cooking chores and dish out full meals that have been prepared with the earth’s heat. There’s even a cooking style named for this activity, called “hell steaming,” or jigoku mushi in Japanese.
Because the steam contains all varieties of natural minerals, the food steamed at onsen tastes great. Many locals enjoy a full meal at the facility immediately after their baths are completed. Whether it’s corn, crab, potatoes or any of dozens of other foods, steam cooking at onsen baths is common in many ryokan.
Tourists will notice that hot spring onsen baths are literally everywhere. Whether in remote mountainside retreats, near cliffs, on sunny beaches or in the most crowded urban location, there will always be a few well-maintained onsen baths. Some Japanese people value the very remote onsen, for which a daylong hike in the wilderness is required. Deep in the woods or high up on hilltops, remote onsen have their devoted followers all over the country.
Some of the fancy onsen locations feature full-scale spas, complete with massage therapists on staff, restaurants, specially-carved stone walls, and resort amenities. Some onsen are mixed-gender, but most tend to be single-gender facilities. In olden times, all onsen baths in Japan were open to everyone, but Westernization has led to more restrictive views of the human body, which has resulted in “men only” and “women only” onsen bathing facilities.
A few of the remaining dual-gender onsen are located in small cities and rural areas, but one of the largest is connected with a major hotel (the Furusato Kanko, located on Sakurajima island) in Kagoshima, Japan’s most southern major city. There, bathers are required to wear body-cover robes even while in the onsen bath, but the entire facility is mixed-gender and is one of the most popular onsen in the nation.
How many hot spring onsen are in Japan? The official government count is “more than 3,000,” but if you count every individual spring outlet, the number would be closer to 100,000.
Social Bathing in Neighborhood Onsen and Sento Baths
Even today, small neighborhood baths are places where people chat about local events, exchange personal information and learn about each other. Japanese families use the local “bath culture” to teach manners to youngsters. These neighborhood onsen and sento baths are extremely important in Japanese society.
When families travel with young children, they often use “family-only,” or private onsen facilities. These private baths cost a bit more but are a common way for families to bathe together and now have to worry about the presence of strangers. The Japanese even have a special word for these facilities that translates literally as “bath for families.”
Finally, couples in modern Japan often rent a private “onsen room” at a ryokan when they travel. Honeymoons and special events are typically spent in a private-room onsen for just two people. It’s a romantic getaway that usually features a gorgeous view, preferably of Mount Fuji or another popular Japanese landmark.
Before You Go to Japan
Due to their incredible popularity and proven health benefits, Japanese onsen will continue to grow in popularity as the world becomes more technological and impersonal. At least that’s what most Japanese sociologists believe.
When you travel to Japan, make sure to do some homework about the best onsen baths near where you’ll be staying. If possible, arrange to enjoy a hot springs bath at the end of each day before going to bed. It’s a great way to relieve the stresses, aches, and pains of a busy tourist’s schedule. It will also help you sleep better and be ready for yet another day of exploring Japan.