The thought of soaking in a hot spring sounds fantastic, especially after a long day sightseeing or skiing. But before you grab your swimmers and towel and rush off – check these rules on Japanese Onsen etiquette.
The outdoor onsen at Lotte Arai ski resort is magical in the snow. Picture: Lotte Arai Resort
If you are staying at a traditional Japanese Inn, or Ryokan, you should have a yakata in your room. This light cotton kimono should be worn to the onsen, to breakfast and dinner. You can go naked underneath it, or just wear underpants.
This lady is wearing a Yukata – check how it is folded.
Make sure you fold the yakata correctly. You need to fold the right side UNDER the left side. Only dead bodies placed in coffins have the yukata folder right over left.
Don’t be fooled by the pictures – no one wears the yukata inside the onsen – we’ll get to that soon.
If the hotel has a jacket – that can be worn over the top of the yukata for cold days.
Grab your towel from your room (and maybe a washcloth)
You will need your towel for after your onsen soak. Bring it from your room. Trust us. Otherwise, you may be left trying to dry yourself with a towel the size of a washer. And you will also look silly.
If you are going to a public onsen you will also need your own washcloth. Note that the Japanese often carry their own wash clothes to use in public toilets. That’s why you can never seem to find the paper towels – they carry their own.
Japanese onsens are strictly gendered. If the hotel has two onsens they will swap the male and female onsens each day to be fair. Children must go with women into the female onsen.
Kids must go with mum to the onsen. Dads get a free pass. Picture: Shutterstock
When to go
We highly recommend going a few times during your stay. You don’t want to miss the best onsen. My Japanese guide tells me you should go before dinner, after dinner and before breakfast.
If you drank alcohol at dinner, you should wait at least an hour before going to the onsen. The heat can make you feel faint.
Before you enter the onsen, you need to remove your shoes.
You should take note of how and where the Japanese remove their shoes to avoid making a mistake. If you reach the onsen via indoors, you may need to take off your shoes before you reach the tatami mats.
This is NOT the way to leave slippers. Picture: Alison Godfrey
Watch the Japanese guests when they take off their slippers. They back up to the step until their heels touch the edge. They step out of their slippers and up onto the step backwards. Then when it comes to going down, they can effortlessly slip their slippers on and walk away. The picture above shows how NOT to do it. Those shoes should be neatly lined up with the heels pressed against the step.
This is the proper Japanese onsen etiquette for shoes. Picture: Shutterstock
Other times, you will find a bench for slippers at the entrance to the onsen. Look for numbered pegs – sometimes you should clip your slippers together with the peg and then use that number for your clothing basket inside.
After you have removed your shoes you will head into the change room. Most onsens will have baskets for your clothes.
Strip off and get naked
Yes, naked. No swimmers. We know all the onsen pictures make it look like you can cover yourself. That’s just for photos. In real life – you must be naked. Everyone is naked. No one cares. Although if you are travelling with teens and tweens – you are going to have to explain this one.
No swimmers in the onsen. Picture: Shutterstock
Put your clothes in a basket
Find a basket to put your clothes and towel into. Fold them nicely. If you had a numbered peg for your shoes – you should match that number to your basket. If not, pick anyone you want.
Leave your towel in the basket. Do not carry it into the onsen.
Grab your washcloth – you’re going to need it for the next step.
Time to shower
Every onsen will have shower taps, soap, shampoo and conditioner. Before you go anywhere near the water, you must cleanse.
Use the shower before the onsen. Picture: Shutterstock
Sit on the stool and place the bucket on the small step in front of you. Turn the taps on and make sure you wash down every part of your body.
Once you’re done, put your washcloth in the bucket. Turn the taps to cold and get the washer nice and soaked with cold water.
Put the cold washer on your head
Some Japanese ladies like to make it fancy. Others just sit it on top. This cold washer will help you to adjust to the heat of the onsen.
Put the cold washer on your head. Picture: Shutterstock
Head for the onsen
Now, naked and with your washer on your head, you can head for the onsen.
If you do feel self-conscious you can wait to put the washer on your head and have it dangle in front to give you a small semblance of privacy.
Make sure you check outside doors – sometimes there’s another onsen pool outside, or hidden around the corner.
Japan onsen. Picture: Shutterstock
Don’t stay in too long
An onsen soak is delightful, but don’t overdo it. You probably want to remain in for about 30 minutes max.
You want to take the soak easy. Dip in a little, immerse, then sit back on a step. Get up, out of the water occasionally and change positions or pools.
In cold snowy areas, some people like to take the bucket and use it as a water scoop to keep their top half warm.
An onsen in the snow is one of the best experiences in Japan. Picture: Shutterstock
Once you’ve had enough you need to go back to the showers. Scrub and wash every part of your body before you head back to the change room to dry.
You will often find the change room has hair dryers, body cream and brushes you can use. You can do this naked, in a towel or in your yukata.