If you are planning a trip to Japan then you should definitely consider experiencing a Japanese onsen (hot spring); it wouldn’t be a trip to Japan without one. As with most things in Japan, tradition and respect are two important aspect of their culture, and as a foreigner in their country it is recommended to understand this.
In the western world, we may think of an onsen as a hot tub, or spa. However, there's no cracking beers or popping corks of champagne. And no clothing is worn. Before you start to panic, onsens are separated by gender; men only and women only onsen.
Follow these tips, and you will surely impress the locals.
Photo Credit: Westin Rusutsu Onsen, Rochelle Vaisanen
As with many places in Japan, when you enter a room there will be a section where you must take off your shoes. Most onsens will have a shoe rack at the entry, so this is your giveaway that this is your point to take shoes off.
BIG TOWEL / LITTLE TOWEL
Depending on the onsen, you may be given two towels on arrival -- a big towel or little towel -- or they will be stacked in the changing room. Most locals will use a little towel while in the onsen – usually wrapped around their head; others will carry it in front of them when walking around to be more private. It is perfectly acceptable to do either - just make sure you take it with you when you leave.
The biggest thing you don’t want to get wrong NOT washing before getting into the water. There will be small shower cubicles for you to wash. Take a seat on the small stool and have a mini shower. There will always be shampoo, conditioner and body wash. If you are at an upmarket place, you might have some luxurious products to use and even a foaming face wash.
Photo Credit: Kiroro Public Bath, by Rochele Vaisanen
This is one rule that maybe isn’t adhered to as much, however hair is supposed to be kept out of the onsen water (which is why many locals use the towel to wrap their hair up).
Traditionally, tattoos were forbidden. Now, some signs state only small tattoos are allowed. However, I’m not sure how well this is policed and how.
Photo Credit: Rochelle Vaisanen
BE QUIET AND RELAX
It is OK to relax with friends, but you won’t notice many locals talking loudly. The Japanese take this very seriously and will move away, rather than saying anything or having their onsen time disrupted. An onsen is a time to sit and relax.
TO RINSE OR NOT TO RINSE
This is a personal decision. After you have finished, it is not a requirement for you to wash again. If you feel a bit uneasy about getting out of the onsen and then getting dressed again without showering, then just rinse with water – but there is no need to go through the whole body wash routine again.