Guide to Japanese onsen

What is onsen?

It’s basically a hot spring, and thanks to extreme volcanic activity, Japan has a lot of them. Onsen is not only a great place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. It also has a lot of health benefits and gives you an amazing opportunity to experience authentic Japanese culture. There’re always some other facilities you can use, like steam room, sauna or jacuzzi.

There’s also few words you need to know:

Onsen and Sento

An Onsen is a natural hot spring, rich in minerals and pumped from places with volcanic activity. Water must contain at least one of the 19 chemical elements that naturally occur in hot spring and has to have 25 degrees Celsius when it’s extracted. Sento is a simple bath-house with heated up underground water. Rules in both are almost the same.

Rotemburo is an open-air bath. It can be a wooden bathtub for one or massive pool filled with onsen water.

Ashiyu is an option for people who don’t like to get naked in front of everybody. It’s a simple foot bath with onsen water.

Why the water has so many different colours?

I’ve been to at least 15 different onsens and in most of them water was just simply clear. However in almost every onsen there was a pool with coloured water. It all depends on it’s mineral composition.

  • Milky white might be a sulphur hot spring
  • Muddy brown to red contains a lot of iron
  • Black is made of decomposed organic matter
  • Green or blue water are not quite explained yet. There’s a theory that green contains a lot of sulfur and blue is silicic acid mixed with sulfur.

I must admit that it was particularly joyful to bath in coloured water 😀

How to find an onsen

While traveling by camper van we were given an iPad with wifi and an onsen app installed. This particular one was showing all the onsen and sento on the map, and it was marked if rotemburo was available. Great and useful stuff, however I can’t tell you the name of the app, as it was all in Japanese. We were just shown which buttons to click on 😀

Many times you will find Onsen or Sento on maps using this symbol ♨.

Which curtain is for me?

The red one is ALWAYS for women and the other one, usually blue, is for man. So even if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language and you can’t read the signs, you will always recognise which curtain is for you.

What to do Step by Step

In many onsens you will find pictures with most important rules. But I wouldn’t always count on them because we’ve stopped in many onsens where there wasn’t any. Here’s a list of things I wish I knew before visiting an onsen for a first time:

  1. find a counter or ticket machine to pay the entrance
  2. take off your shoes and put them on a shoe rack or locker
  3. make sure you have a small towel with you (face or tea towel will do just fine). You’ll be given towel in some onsens, but always have your own just in case
  4. Put some of the most important toiletries in a bag or wee basket like Japanese would do. I’ve never taken anything beside face cream or lotion. The shower gel, shampoo and conditioner were always provided and they were of a good quality too
  5. If you’re paying at the counter you will probably receive a key to the locker but if you don’t or you’ll be using ticket machine, make sure you have some 100yen coins with you. Otherwise you won’t be able to use the locker
  6. find the right curtain and your locker, take off your clothes and put them inside, take only the small towel with you.
  7. Locate the entrance to the bathing area. You will notice women coming and going. If you’re taking your own toiletries, you can take them in your plastic basket. I never did that, but if you want to have your own cosmetics, it’s absolutely fine. Once you finish your shower, you can place them somewhere by the wall like everyone else.
  8. Go in and find the shower area. It’s usually the first thing you’ll be able to spot. There’s usually a mirror, small stool and toiletries. Take a seat, wet your towel, take a shower and wash your hair
  9. Once you’re nice and clean, start using the pools! You can place the towel on your head or simply place it somewhere next to you, just not in the water
  10. I always take another shower after but I know that some people don’t like washing off the hot spring water
  11. When you’re done, make sure to dry off your skin and tie your hair up to avoid splashing water in changing area. Of course you will have only your small, wet towel so there’s only so much drying you can do… Just get rid of the excess water and that will be fine.
  12. Once you’re nice and dry, you can get dressed and use the hair dryers. They’re always provided

All the big Don’ts

  • No tattoos It started when only Yakuza were tattooed in Japan. Japanese mafia was refused an entry to onsen, which is still the case today. Time has changed and now not only Yakuza has tattoos, even in Japan. On my second visit I’ve seen few tattooed people (Japanese and foreigners) in onsens but the rules there change very slow, so most onsens will refuse an entry to people with visible tattoos.
  • No floating hair in the water If you have a long hair, make sure you tie it properly. Don’t let it touch the water. You wouldn’t want some one else’s hair touching you.
  • Towel can’t touch the water You can keep it on your head or on the side of the pool. You can sit on it on the edge of the pool or in the steam room but it can never touch the water. It’s considered unclean.
  • Don’t splash water at others When you’re taking the shower, make sure you’re sitting on the stool and carefully wash yourself. Don’t stand and splash water everywhere. Once you’re done, rinse off the stool and the whole area you were using.
  • Of course no phones and photos are allowed
  • No alcohol
  • No swimwear

My favourite facilities

Every onsen is an amazing experience but usually you will find some extra facilities too, like sauna, steam room or hot tub. I very much enjoyed the steam rooms with massive barrel filled with coarse sea salt. The barrel is placed in the middle, you would take a handful and scrub yourself with it. Sometimes a member of staff would come in and fan everyone individually with large wooden paddles. My skin was never as soft as then, believe me. Some places have massive hot tubs in rock caves or cute, classic wooden tubs outside. But nothing will bring you as much joy as simply sitting in open air bath (rotemburo), surrounded by traditional Japanese garden under the sky full of stars.

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