If you give it a chance, the ritual of Japanese onsen will grow on you.
As a foreigner, you may feel a little uneasy at the thought of getting naked to bathe in a public hot pool, but once this hurdle is overcome you’ll be hooked. Soaking in nutritious, deliciously hot onsen water will soon become a treat, whether you’re looking to start your morning right or relax at the end of a busy day.
Flight Centre Consultant Greer Gardiner experienced the joys of onsen in her whirlwind 48 Hour Destination exploration of Japan. Here are a few things to know before enjoying your own onsen session.
1. You must be 100% nude in an onsen
Only very special circumstances (such as filming the 48-Hour Destination) would make it acceptable for someone to wear clothing or jewellery into an onsen. Bathing in the volcanic hot springs is a cherished purification ritual that the Japanese have been observing for centuries.
While the idea of bathing starkers with strangers seems odd at first, you’ll soon realise that everyone is too busy blissing out to worry about their nakey neighbours.
2. Wash thoroughly before entering the onsen
This is another respectful step in the onsen ritual - a thorough cleanse before entering the hot pool. Bathing stations and stools are provided by the side of the pool, and in high-end onsen you are often treated to luxury amenities. Be sure to rinse it all off before plunging in to the piping hot water.
3. Men and womens' onsens are separate
Men and women’s baths are kept separate, although it’s not uncommon to see small boys with their mothers in the female onsen. There are a few special onsen that have mixed pools, be generally you can’t bathe with your companion of the opposite sex unless you book a private onsen session, which ranks super high on the romance scale.
4. Different onsen have different mineral content
Japan boasts several different types of onsen water, dependent on the mineral content of the volcanic surrounds. The type of onsen you might encounter include sulphur, sodium bicarbonate, iron, sulphate and radium; each with their own unique health benefits.
5. Some onsens are more rustic than others
If you’re seeking the authentic, rock-pool vibes of the onsen that Greer visits in the 48-Hour Destination, you may have to go looking for it. Onsen bathing is a staple of Japanese life, and some facilities are sleek and modern, tiled in sparkling white.
6. Tattoos are generally not permitted in onsens
This rule is a throwback to the times when tattoos were a trademark of Yakuza gangsters, but the situation is a bit more lenient in the areas of Japan where there’s high tourist traffic. Look for a sign at reception to see if it’s okay to flash your ink in a particular onsen; you may get away with a teeny butterfly on your ankle, but a panther on your back is another matter!
7. How to do onsen towels right
Towel rental is not included in the onsen admission price, and you will be asked if you would like a full-sized towel and a modesty towel. The latter is for covering up a little between the locker rooms and showers, and again between the showers and pools; but is not meant to be submerged in the water. To look like a pro, simply fold up your modesty towel and pop it on top of your head!
8. There are outdoor onsen
Most onsens will offer some form of outdoor hot pool - look for rotenburo in the onsen description if you have your heart set on a soak in the great outdoors.