Having the chance to experience an onsen in Japan can be life-changing and incredibly addictive. I can't imagine anything better than relaxing in a hot pool, whilst surrounded by nature. To me, it's one of the best definitions of zen. Traditions and culture are deeply rooted in Japan, and even the little thing can seem like a ritual to you. This is the beauty of Japan, this is what makes this country so incredible, so unique. Taking a bath in an onsen is no different. It all starts with the preparation, it's all thought through, to ensure you truly get to relax, you truly enjoy your time, and at the end, you respect others and the nature around you.
Here is everything you need to know before going to a Japanese onsen. Even if you have a tattoo and wondered if an onsen can be for you, please read on, as I will cover this topic as well. You can also read more about my experience in an onsen in Nikko.
There is a really good chance that this post contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission (which helps us keep this site live and free for all) at no extra cost to you. Thank you.
How to best experience an onsen in Japan - Contents
1. What is an onsen
An onsen is essentially a hot spring. Because Japan is a volcanically active country, there are multiple onsens located throughout all regions. This results in a natural hot water, perfect for bathing and relaxing. It is said to have several health benefits, hence it is actually recommended that you take advantage of onsens on a regular basis.
You can find onsens pretty much anywhere in Japan. Most of them are part of a ryokan, which is a Japanese traditional inn. For the best experience, I recommending spending at least one night in a ryokan which also offers access to the onsen.
2. Differences between onsens
Although all onsens offer naturally hot spring water, there are several differences between them. Not geologically speaking, but commercially.
Open Air Baths
This means that the onsen is open air. This means you can enjoy the beauty of the Japanese natural worlds, whilst soaking in a hot bath. These onsens offering open-air baths are the most popular, especially the ones close to Mount Fuji, as you can enjoy breathtaking views. There is no doubt about the fact that these are the most popular onsens in Japan.
Private Open Air Baths
These are perhaps my favourite because you get to enjoy a secluded experience in an onsen, where you don't have to share with anyone. This is the perfect treat for yourself and your loved one. You don't have to rush, you don't have to worry about anyone around you, you don't have to feel awkward because you need to be naked in front of others (more on this later in the article). The downside of taking advantage of an open-air bath is that these rooms come with a serious price tag. Expect to pay a serious amount of money for privacy and luxury. But it has to be experienced at least once in a lifetime.
Hot Spring Baths for Private Use
I couldn't afford to pay for a private open-air bath all the time, so for when I still need to satisfy my privacy and my credit card limit, a hot spring bath for private use is the best bet. This means that you can reserve a short period of time of the onsen for private use.
Yup, you can have it all by yourself! You don't have to worry about others, running around naked or feeling awkward. You can take your time, admire the nature around you and relax. This usually has to be done either in advance or during the check-in process. Because it is on a first come first served basis, I recommend getting to the onsen as early as possible to book your private time. Some charge a little extra for the private use of the onsen, but it's well worth it.
Gender Specific Onsen
These are specific for your own gender. You will only bathe in areas where the same gender is allowed. This is quite great if you are a shy female who doesn't want to be seen naked by a bunch of dudes. I don't blame you.
There are times when you might want to share the onsen experience with your partner. For example, I wouldn't want to be in an onsen by myself, hence, I would look for mixed gender onsen, which allows us both to use the same facilities. Do note that unless you reserve the hot springs for private use, you might share the onsen with other couples, people etc. So if you are shy, maybe this is not a great option. Consider renting a ryokan room with private open-air baths.
3. The onsen ritual
This might sound bizarre, but as with everything Japanese, there is an etiquette for using an onsen. And yes, you need to familiarise yourself with this rules and no, you can't be forgiven for not respecting them just because you are a foreign tourist. Most onsens will have a small "how to" sign at the entrance, but just in case, here is what you need to do.
Before you enter the onsen, you need to wash. This might seem counter-intuitive, but the onsen is not for washing your body, is for relaxation purposes. Besides, the water is always clean and in order to keep it that way, you have to wash before you bath in an onsen. I'm sure you wouldn't like to enter a hot spring in a hotel, knowing that everyone around you might have skipped bathing for a few days. It's yucky, hence, everyone needs to wash BEFORE entering the onsen. You need to use a lot of soap and you need to rinse properly. You can use a stool provided to sit down whilst you wash. Make sure you also rinse the stool and the area around you, once you finished.
When entering the onsen, make sure you are delicate about it and you don't dive nor splash around. Use a towel to cover your modesty until you enter the water. Don't allow for the towel to touch the water. You can fold the towel and put it over your head whilst bathing. Yes, people are actually naked in onsens.
Once in the bath, make sure you don't swim. Onsen facilities are for soaking, meditating and contemplating. If your towel slips into the water, remove it immediately and wring it outside the bath, NEVER in the hot springs.
Once you are done soaking, use your towel to wipe off excess water and sweat before entering the locker room.
4. Onsen with a tattoo
Let's talk about bathing in an onsen if you have a tattoo. I have a tattoo and I was desperate to try an onsen. In fact, I really can't wait to go back to Japan so I can soak in the Japanese hot springs again. Problem is, I have not one, but two tattoos and one of them is quite large on my shoulder. I think tattoos are amazing and I find them incredible, but in Japan, they are not seen the same way. This is because they are usually associated with gangs such as the Yakuza. Understandably, people in Japan frown upon tattoos, especially if they cover a large part of your body.
So what should you do if you have tattoos? Well, the good news is that nowadays there are several tattoo friendly onsens. Japanese ryokan owners understand that foreigners have nothing to do with the Yakuza, hence they have a more relaxed policy. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics coming up, the governments are also asking ryokan owners to make more allowances for foreigners. However, there is still hope if the onsen you plan to visit doesn't allow tattoos: you can opt in for a room with private open-air bath, or you can reserve a time to make the most out of the onsen for private use. This way, nobody will know or care if you have tattoos and people around you won't look at your funny. It's a win-win situation. Make sure you ask at the reception if and how you can reserve the private use of the onsen. It might cost a little extra, but it's well worth it.
If a ryokan owner refuses entry to the onsen because of your ink, don't be offended and be respectful about it. The best thing to do is to send the ryokan owner a message and ask if you can either use the onsen or reserve it because you have tattoos. People are very reasonable and they will try to accommodate you.
Is there any onsen you always wanted to visit? Would you be comfortable enough to bathe naked in an onsen? Let me know all about it in the comments section below.