Etiquette JapanSnowtripTips-Japan-Onsen-Guide

Published on April 21st, 2012 | by Japan Snowtrip Tips


Japanese Onsen Guide: How to enjoy yourself and not piss-off the locals

The rules of onsen etiquette are simple, but the experience can be intimidating at first. Check out our Guide to Onsen Etiquette to help make your first onsen visit a good one.

Japanese Onsen Guide: Bathing culture in Japan

JapanSnowtripTips-Japan-Onsen-GuideWhether in a bathtub at home, a sulphuric cauldron of naturally heated volcanic water in the  mountains or an indoor spa at a hotel with large public bathing area, the Japanese take soaking in water very seriously. But that doesn`t mean you shouldn`t jump right into onsen life in Japan (but don`t physically jump please).

Although the modern focus of Japanese bathing culture mixes a good dose of rest & relaxation with its religious Buddhist heritage, the experience still maintains centuries-old ritualistic roots. For many Japanese today, soaking is still about spiritual cleansing, mental & physical revitalization, as well as an associative exercise of  societal  collectivism. That is, sharing a bath is a way to become emotionally closer to those around you.

You`re free to interpret the onsen experience in any way you`d like. The common denominator is how good it feels to relax in mineral-rich water, repairing your sore leg muscles from a day of riding blower Japanese powder. The general rules of onsen etiquette aren`t difficult to follow, nor are they so demanding to warrant apprehension.  An open-mind, a few hundred Yen, some self-confidence and courtesy toward those around you are all that`s required.

Japanese Onsen Guide: 5 standard onsen rules

JapanSnowtripTips-Japan-Onsen-GuideEvery onsen or sento (indoor artificial thermal spa) will have their own specific rules posted in Japanese, English and potentially other languages, so if you can read you `ll have a great time.

Onsen Rule #1: No Shoes or clothing allowed in the bathing Area

Onsen Rule #2: Clean your body with soap/shampoo and rinse BEFORE entering the bath

Onsen Rule #3: DO NOT get soap or shampoo in the bath water

Onsen Rule#4: Enter the water slowly

Onsen Rule #5: Do not jump, splash or swim

Japanese Onsen Guide Step-by-step Info


+ Walk to the reception desk with a smile…
Upon entering the front door, you`ll often be required to remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Afterwards, pay the clerk behind the desk or find the vending machine-style payment box to drop in your coins and purchase what you want. It`s a good idea to get a little help if you encounter one of these payment machines (with push tabs resembling a soda vending machine, except with monetary values for time-length, extra towels, robes, etc.) so you know exactly what you`re buying.
+ 2. Enter the gender-specific changing room…
Normally BLUE is for MALES, RED is for FEMALES. If you haven`t already, remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers. Walk into the changing room and remove your clothing. Place your items in one of the lockers or storage compartments. Not all onsen provide lockable storage, but the cliché about Japanese life being very safe & crime free is quite accurate. If anything were stolen from you, you would be in a monumental minority of onsen visitors.
+ 3. Use the toilet facilities but…
Be sure to wear & remove the toilet slippers in the bathroom ONLY, not in the changing room or bathing area.
+ 4. Enter the bathing area, but don`t hop in just yet…
Along the wall(s) you`ll see individual body cleansing areas equipped with shower hose, seat, small bucket, mirror and soap/shampoo dispensers. Gently rinse your cleansing area then sit on the small seat. Clean your hair & body. Don`t rush or splash soapy water everywhere. Rinse your body, wash cloth & seating area, then walk over to the bath.
+ 5. Before you enter the thermal water…
Place your rinsed wash cloth on top of your head. DO NOT let your wash cloth fall into the bath as it will contaminate the clean bath water with soap residue. Enter the hot water slowly. This will prevent splashing and more importantly help your body adjust to the high water temperature.
+ 6. Soak until you`re cooked…
Enjoy the onsen for as long as you`d like. If you begin to feel too hot (which is likely at some point), sit on the edge of the bath with your legs in the water to cool-down, then sink back in. Sometimes there are multiple bathing areas with slightly different temperatures or mineral content in the water. Feel free to move from one bathing area to the next. When you`re fully relaxed (i.e. cooked), return to one of the cleansing areas along the wall and rinse your body with cool/cold water. This is not mandatory, nor is it always advised as some onsen goers say it negatively affects how the minerals interact with body, but it`s a great way to bring your core body temperature back down near normal levels.
+ 7. Return to the changing area…
Dry-off, get dressed then find a vending machine with your favorite Japanese beverage so you can re-hydrate.

Japan Onsen Guide Snowtrip Tips

Snowtrip Tip 1: Cheap showers & toilets for broke powder junkies

Going to the onsen is an integral component of the Japanese cultural experience and an excellent way to partake in the traditional Japanese lifestyle, as well as revitalize sore skiing-snowboarding muscles. But if you`re a snowbum on a budget staying in a place with a cramped shared bathroom or unreliable hot water pumps, the onsen also provides the perfect place to get rejuvenated & stay clean for only a few hundred Yen. Realistically, you`ll never need a traditional shower so long as you can access an onsen during your snowtrip (which will be easy because they`re everywhere).

Snowtrip Tip 2: Bring the 4 key onsen ingredients…

We recommend to always bring along your own towel, wash cloth, soap & shampoo when going to a small rural hot-spring. There`s no need to worry if you don`t have these key onsen accessories at a lot of places as modern onsen in hotels or touristic regions supply you with everything for minor additional fees. The prices are normally around ¥1000 for all of the items. But you`ll save yourself time, money and hassle on return trips if you`re prepared with the four primary onsen items listed above before arrival.

Snowtrip Tip 3: Soaking not speaking…

Generally try to avoid talking when in the bath, but especially refrain from speaking loudly. You`ll hear all sorts of “moans, groans, ooohs & aahhhhs,” but this is considered a normal part of the experience. You`ll find out for yourself that emitting an “ahhhhhhhhhh” while sinking into a super hot volcanic hot spring is a great way to acclimate to the temperature and relax. Men and women follow nearly identical protocol at the onsen, but with regards to loud talking, there is definitely a propensity for the women`s bath to be more boisterous than the men`s. It`s not a sexist statement, it`s just the way it is. Not all onsen are like this, but generally, there is far more “cackling from the old hens” in the female bath.

Snowtrip Tip 4: Toilet first, then bath, not at the same time…

Don`t pee in the water! It`s gross and unsanitary, especially in such a small enclosed area. Besides there`s always a toilet in the changing area. If you go to the toilet, make sure to wear & remove your bathroom slippers in the bathroom ONLY. If you forget — and you wouldn`t be the first — discreetly walk back to the bathroom to deposit the slippers inside the toilet room doorway.

Snowtrip Tip 5: Stretch out, but you`ll be stared at…

Stretching isn`t something you see in onsen from the Japanese, nor is it considered proper. But this is one little etiquette faux pas that is generally overlooked (by us). A good leg stretch in thermal spring water works wonders for weary skiing & snowboarding legs.

Snowtrip Tip 6: You gotta`keep `em separated…

Even after more than 800 years of legal-versus-moral-versus-legal debate in Japan regarding women in onsen, as well as men & women together in onsen, the majority of modern public baths have gender-segregated areas as they were in the 17th century. If you`re apprehensive about bathing in public, especially as a woman, this aspect of Japanese onsen culture makes it a lot less unnerving. It`s not very cool for couples, but 20-30 minutes apart is worth it for a relaxing soak following a day of rabid powder riding.

Snowtrip Tip 7: Family time together until you`re 8…

It`s still common to see families at the bath together, so don`t be alarmed if you see children with their guardians together in the onsen. As most onsen are gender-segregated, children up to age 8 are permitted to use either male or female onsen (i.e. son can go with mother, daughter can go with father).

Snowtrip Tip 8: Onsen water+soap = You suck

Onsen bathing in Japan is something you do after you`ve washed your body. Be conscious to not let soapy water run into the bath when rinsing yourself or bring soapy residue into the bath. Soap or shampoo in the bathing water is considered unclean and is truly one of the “NO-NO`s” at the onsen. This is why you`ll see people with a towel on their head. The small cloth used to clean the body then rinsed before entering the bath, could still contain traces of soap. For this reason, the small towel is placed on top of the head to prevent it from contaminating the bath. Also, don`t be surprised if you see a Japanese person washing themselves at the cleansing area for as long as it took you to wash, rinse, soak until you`re fully cooked and rinse off again before heading back to the changing room. The cleansing portion of the onsen experience is interpreted by many Japanese as the most significant ritualistic act and is often a lengthy process.

Snowtrip Tip 9: Be calm & confident…

Staring is not recommended or polite, however, Westerners often attract the attention of Japanese simply based on the stark difference of body-type compared to their own. Don`t be self-conscious or shocked if you see someone looking at you for a moment. Simply go about your business and enjoy the ultimate mental & physical revitalization of the onsen experience.


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About the Author

is designed to help snowtrippers mix cultural excursions with epic powder submersions in Japan. All content is created by Alpine Objectives LLC owner, Christopher DiSabato, who has more than 20 years of international snowpro media, education and operations experience. JSTT offers honest, original, first-hand insight to help guide you along your journey of snow-driven discovery on Honshu & Hokkaido.

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