Could someone turn down the heat, please? A guide to Japanese Onsens.
Ever been wrapped up in a really cosy blanket with the steam of a hot drink wafting past your face? Maybe you are hidden away on a mountain while the sound of a waterfall can be heard in the distance? Does that sound appealing to you? This is what a onsen is like!
Ever been wrapped up in a really cosy blanket with the steam of a hot drink wafting past your face? Maybe you have hidden away on a mountain while the sound of a waterfall can be heard in the distance? Does that sound appealing to you? This is what an onsen is like! Well, apart from the fact that you are au naturel, in hot water and you can't drink it!
The tradition that bubbled through time.
When I started writing this blog, a question popped into my head, when was the first onsen? To be clear, I am not talking about the natural onsen that the Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) use as the one in Hell valley. But the ones that were either man-made or recognised as one used by humans. So, what’s the answer? Well after some looking around, I found evidence that they were mentioned in the 1st century which is just amazing! However, it isn’t too shocking when you understand why they are so loved by the Japanese and tourists from around the world. So, the next question which should have been the first is, what is an onsen?
Onsen literally translates to hot spring. So, we now know what it is but what is the difference between man-made and natural and why are they so popular? Well, it’s to do with the purpose and practise around onsen. Therefore, that’s what this blog is about, it’s broken into three parts: what is an onsen, how to use onsen, some rules around onsen!
Originally onsen was famous for the belief that they possessed mystical and holy powers as the spring water is mineral heavily and was seen as highly valuable due to how they historically got the water from the ground. However, they are more commonly known for their warming and therapeutic qualities. These qualities are said to come from minerals like sulphur, iron, and magnesium that can help promote healthy skin, reduce aches and pains, and even boost the immune system.
Because of their history and being buried so deep in Japanese culture, you can’t just make one, you must get it certified by the Japanese government due to the Onsen-hou law. The law states that an onsen must be comprised of natural spring water that is at least 25°C in its natural state and contain at least 1 of 19 specific mineral or chemical elements within a certain parameter.
Another reason why onsen is so popular today is the development around them. Their popularity through time led to individuals taking the chance to set up shops to cater to the onsen visitors which resulted in further development of towns and villages. The common building that can be found around onsen are ryokans which are Japanese traditional inns that sometimes utilize the natural hot-spring water in their own baths in the hope of drawing more customers to their businesses.
Now hopefully you are pencilling a visit to an onsen but how do you find one? Well apart from our lovely friend google or duckduckgo, how would you find one on the go? Well, there are things to look out for. They often have long drapes (noren) at the entrance and are marked by a “hot bath” symbol - ♨️or the character 湯/ゆ.
Prepare for conquest!
So, you found yourself an onsen, what do you do now? Well, pull up your pants because you are about to pull them down! One thing that I found people struggle with is being fully nude in a bath with complete strangers (usually same-sex). Therefore, the first step is preparing for everyone to be nude but don’t worry about it because no one will be looking as everyone will be too busy enjoying the onsen to bother to look around for more than a few seconds.
Now there is one thing that was mentioned a bit too late when it comes to visiting onsen is if you have any tattoos then you’re going to need to do some research. Unfortunately, most onsens forbid visitors with tattoos from entering. The simple reason why is the Japanese population see tattoos seen as a bad sign due to tattoos being used to identify criminals in the Edo period and because of that, tattoos are linked with the Yakuza as they would get new tattoos designs to cover the criminal mark tattoos and to signify that they belonged to a specific group.
But don’t panic as some onsens allow visitors with tattoos or would offer the option of allowing you to cover them to allow you to enter. Roughly a third of all recognized onsen in Japan do not restrict tattoos at all and the number is slowly increasing with the increased drive of foreigners coming to onsens.
What about toiletries? It’s up to you in my opinion, most onsens have their shampoos and body washes available but there is no harm in packing your own toiletries. One thing for those with long hair, you will want to have some hair ties around to keep your hair out of the bath. Now to be clear, I represent the male species so this part isn’t something I normally had to consider but for those who are of the female species, it isn’t highly recommended to go to onsen during menstrual cycles although if it can’t be avoided then use a tampon as it will stop fluids from entering or leaving via the cervical opening. In terms of pregnant women, there are no major problems that will be caused by using onsen but some onsen may list pregnant women as unfit for them as a precaution.
Some sites say that you need to bring two towels or be prepared to rent/buy them. But I will be honest, from my experience most of the time, the onsen price will include renting the towels so don’t panic about it too much. Although if you want to, then bring one towel. But ultimately just prepare to have a nice, relaxed time.
Onwards to greater things
So now you have prepared to enter, you need to enter! After passing through the Noren, you will likely need to remove your shoes before stepping further in. Usually, there is a wall or two of free shoe lockers where you can store your shoes. Then you will need to purchase a ticket to go into the onsen, some onsen have a ticket machine, others have a payment counter only. These tickets are used to exchange for locker keys that you can use to access lockers to store your clothes and stuff.
Next, you will come across two sets of Noren, these Noren indicate male and female changing rooms. These Noren will have the kanji for male 男 and female 女. Pass through the appropriate Noren and then strip off all your clothes and place them, along with any other belongings, in the locker. Now here’s a key rule for onsen, do not use your phone or camera in the locker room or bathing area as it can get you into a lot of trouble!
Now to move into the bathing area, but before you take a step out of the changing room, please do use the toilet first if you think you might need it during your time in the onsen! Right, you are stripped down to your birthday suit, you probably will try to cover yourself up, it’s natural but this is where I need to point out, you can’t bring your normal towel with you. When you exchanged your ticket, you will have been handed a small towel. That is the towel you are allowed to take into the bathing area. Apart from the small towel, you should take your toiletries (and hair tie if you need it) with you.
When you step into the bathing area, you will find a row of low showers accompanied by stools and buckets along the walls of the bathing area and several indoor and outdoor baths. Now before you dive into the onsen, you need to clean yourself. So, pull up a stool to one of the showers and drop yourself down onto it. Then thoroughly wash, every crack and crevice need to be cleaned before you stand back up. So, make sure to use soap yourself up and give yourself a good scrub. This is when you can use your small towel to help scrub yourself clean. Finally, after you cleaned every spot on your body, rinse off the stool and your small towel. Also do return any shampoo, soap, or anything else you used back to their original places. Now tie up your hair if you have long hair, your hair should never touch the water in the bath.
Time to dive!
Well, don’t dive into the onsen! Please walk to whichever onsen bath you want to use, most of the time, you will notice other users of the onsen will be holding their small towel in front of their crotch area for modesty reasons but you have to remember that the towel must not enter the bath itself. Once you slide yourself into the bath, you have to either place it on the side of the bath or fold it up and place it on your head while you sit in the bath.
Now when you enter, you might have a slight shock as onsen water is often very hot so there is no need to rush to get in. When it comes to the baths, the properties of the water can slightly vary, for example, some might be cloudy or more alkaline. You will be able to feel the difference when you have spent a good few minutes in the onsen. Now I should make clear there is no rule about being in the baths for a specific amount of time, so there is no need to try to force yourself to stay in, especially if you start to get too hot, then you should get out and take a break or switch to a cooler bath. Some onsen have a cold-water bath called “Mizu-buro”, a little warning about these is they are very cold! Most people use them straight after using the sauna. Quick health warning, please don’t switch from the Mizu-buro straight to a hot bath as that will give you a shock!
Sauna rooms are a common facility at onsens. I expect a good few of the readers may have used a sauna room so you will know how to use them but for those of you that haven’t, here’s some rules! When it comes to using, do not stay in the room for longer than the recommended time, it can result in you fainting if you overdo it. When it comes to sitting down in the sauna, it is good manners to sit on top of your small towel.
There is one other bath that I should mention quickly, Denki-buro baths which are electric baths that have a low-level current running through the water. For anyone with a pacemaker or a heart condition, then please do avoid these kinds of baths entirely. They are easy to spot as they usually are a clear bath with metal plates on the sides of the bath.
When you are switching between baths and other facilities like sauna rooms, it is a good manner to give yourself a quick rinse during the switches so that you aren’t just bringing your sweat into the baths with you!
Are there any other rules that you need to follow? Well, keep your noise low, it is completely fine to have a chat and laugh with people but as the atmosphere of onsen is quite relaxed, you should try to keep things at a reasonable volume. This also applies to moving around the onsen, you shouldn’t swim in the baths like a swimming pool unless it is a massive bath and you want to get to move to another side for some reason and don’t run around, especially as running on the ground that could be wet can be very dangerous. Another thing is don’t get too close to other people; personal space is key when it comes to onsens!
When it comes to how long you can be in an onsen, usually the only time limits are opening and closing times unless you book a private onsen bath, then there will be a time limit. Usually, most people I know spend about 1-2 hours in a normal onsen so when it comes to leaving the baths, do make sure you don’t leave anything behind, especially your small towel or locker key (which should be around your wrist). Now you have a decision to make, do you shower again or not? This is a personal decision up to you, as some people don’t wash off the onsen water immediately afterwards as they want to benefit from the properties of the onsen water for a bit longer but other people wash immediately as onsen is shared water and certain onsen water types may be harsh on the skin if you do not wash them off.
When you leave the bathing area, try to dry yourself off as best as possible before returning your small towel to a box of used towels. Then get dressed and head out to the lounge area. Most lounge areas have vending machines where you can buy drinks like water, beer, and sake. But most people will buy fresh milk! It’s a traditional thing to do after having an onsen, it’s usually sold in glass bottles which you can return for recycling.
Please may I have some privacy?
I will be honest, I would completely understand if going to an onsen and being fully nude sounds daunting, don’t worry, there are options for private baths too! Now you will have to pay a fee to hire them but let’s say you are a couple, then it’s perfect as there are no restrictions in terms of mixing genders, and on tattoos! Just be sure to keep clean up after you leave it!
Onsens aren’t just used for bathing, it are also used for cooking sometimes. The boiling waters and steam of hot springs can be used to boil eggs to make Onsen Tamago, which are common snacks at onsens. It can be used to steam things like crab, lobster, fish, sweet potatoes, corn.
Additional points that need to be considered!
When it comes to those who are genderqueer, things do get very messy. Now in terms of transgender individuals who are post-op, there shouldn’t be any problems. But when it comes to other genderqueer and pre-op transgender individuals, the basis of gender separation for onsen is based on what’s below the belt and not on an individual’s gender identity. So for those individuals, there are currently only two main ways of getting into an onsen, one way is to rent a private onsen or the other way is to try out a co-ed onsen. The problem with co-ed onsen is there aren’t many left nowadays.
Onsen will hold an odd space in my memory as it is one of a kind experience and a great insight into a key part of Japanese culture! I want to share one last thing before I finish this blog, which is the sound that reminds me of onsens.
So, it is time to say a big thank you to everyone reading this week's blog. In terms of the next blog, I do a schedule although I haven't really stuck to it due to life and stuff getting into the way but oh well. So, until next time, arigatou gozaimasu and sayōnara!