Onsens are daunting. There’s no avoiding it; getting naked with strangers is awkward.
A very important part of Japanese culture and tradition, a visit to an onsen should be on every traveller’s bucket list. An onsen is the Japanese equivalent of roman baths; a communal bathing area. Found all over Japan, they are heated by naturally occurring hot springs.
Oh so, like a spa? One big difference: everyone is naked. Eek!
What to expect
Ultimate relaxation… this is what an onsen offers. Just feel your muscles unwinding and loosening in the hot water.
Most onsen’s will have multiple baths, with different features; varying temperatures, waterfalls and plunge pools. There is usually at least one outdoor bath. I definitely preferred the outdoor baths, they offer a pleasant balance between the steamy baths and brisk outside air. The indoor baths are very humid and the heat can get oppressive.
On your way out, be sure to indulge in a milk drink from the vending machine. These drinks are only offered at onsen’s and are the closest thing to full cream milk you will find in Japan!
How does it work?
Every onsen experience varies but there are a few standard rules.
On arrival, you will remove your shoes. You may be required to put them on a shelf, exchanging them for some very stylish wooden clogs or old man slippers. Alternatively, at some onsens you will put your shoes in a locker. You will also be given a special waterproof key for your next locker.
Once past reception, you enter the changerooms. Most onsens are separated by gender, so men and women bathe separately. The changerooms are also separated and connect directly to the onsen.
It’s time guys. This is where you get your kit off. There’s no getting around it. If you want to experience an onsen, you must do it naked. For some people, this part is easy. In many European cultures, naked spas and saunas are common, and often are not separated by gender. However, if you are from Australia like myself, it’s a different story.
My first time, I put it off for as long as possible. I waited till the very last moment, to make the trip from locker room to spa as short as possible. Those first few moments walking into the spa room, awkwardly trying to cover your body and realising two arms are just not enough, are short lived. You quickly realise that nobody cares. Everyone else is either focused on their own embarrassment or just blissing out in the steaming baths. So relax!
Before you can jump into the safety of the water, you need to wash yourself. On entering the bathing area, there is a small section with individual sinks, hoses and stools lining the wall. Here you make use of the shampoo and soap provided to lather up and get clean; washing your hair is generally optional but it is good practice to tie your hair up.
All done? Time to sink into the hot water, close your eyes and relax.
No photos. Leave your phone in your locker, there are no photos in the onsen! (Hence why this post is photo-free).
No tattoos. This rule really depends on each individual onsen. In Japan, tattoos are associated with the yakuza; the japanese mafia. Most places recognise that tourists are unlikely to be yakuza members but can still be sensitive about tattoos. Some onsen’s will require you to cover your tattoo.
Don’t be too rowdy. While onsen’s are social places, they are also quiet places for relaxation. Respect this atmosphere and keep the noise down.
Best places for an onsen visit
Ryokan are a type of traditional accommodation in Japan. They are a great way to experience japanese culture and tradition; sleeping the night away on futons and dining on expertly prepared authentic cuisine. Often ryokan will be attached to an onsen for your bathing needs, as opposed to offering western style bathrooms.
Beppu, a coastal city on the southern island of Kyushu, is famous for boasting more than 2,000 onsen.
Suginoi Hotel has a fantastic onsen, which was one of my favourites. It is located on the side of the mountain overlooking Beppu and offers incredible night time views over the city lights. It is predominantly outdoor and incredibly luxurious. It features timber accents, lounge baths, sauna and a plunge pool. Suginoi also offers a popular clothed pool, with an impressive light show and fun floaties for hire.
Beppu also offers special sand baths. These are located on the beach and involved being almost completely covered in hot sand. Being prone to claustrophobia, I opted to give this experience a miss. However, I heard from those who visited that it is a very unique experience.
A beautiful mountain town about two hours from Tokyo, Hakone is host to numerous onsen. An opportunity to unwind in the heated baths while enjoying the fresh mountain air!
Have a great onsen to recommend? Let me know in the comments below!