Onsen 101

© Claire Ghyselen

Hot springs are often marketed for their positive effects on health — the tissues, cardiovascular system, blood circulation — due to its mineral content, the hot water is supposed to have a positive impact on your body.

As the Romans used to say — and they were enjoying hot springs, too — “Mens sana in corpore sano” (“Healthy mind in a healthy body”).

In Japan, we could also say the reverse is true: Healthy body in healthy mind as both together create a whole.

This is when onsen come into the picture. Hot springs are, above all, a contemplative activity designed to rejuvenate your mind. The hot water and the sulphur smell have that pacifying effect on you. If you keep that in mind, you’ll be all right.

Here are some things to consider before you go inside:

Do you have a towel with you? If you don’t, try to find a tenugui (small towel) shop and get one of those. These towels are made of cotton and come in many colors and patterns. It’ll be one of your best souvenirs from Japan. Hot springs are so hot, you’ll dry very fast, so a tenugui is enough. The last one I got in Kusatsu represents the Milky Way. It’s so beautiful the shop owner showed it off in a frame. It was the last one. He offered to take it from the frame for me. I was a bit embarrassed by his kind offer but I couldn’t resist and, as a gift to myself, I got the Milky Way.

Do you have tattoos? Traditionally, those with tattoos weren’t permitted to use public baths because of the affiliation of body art with criminals. If you do have tattoos, you may be refused entry to some public baths. It’s good to ask before you enter the place. If the tattoo is small, you may be able to enter after covering it with a bandage. You can also go to a spa with a private bathing section.

About Etiquette
Enjoying onsen in Japan is done in the nude, so it can be intimidating at first for foreign visitors who may not be accustomed to this activity. Rest assured, there’s no promiscuity and nobody’s watching. It’s also gender-segregated in most places.

So keep cool, don’t watch others and get over that initial discomfort and you’ll get the most out of it.

Here are the steps you’ll follow when visiting an onsen:

  1. Undress totally. No swimsuits. Don’t worry, the hot springs are not gender-mixed. Keep cool and discreet, hide away critical parts without making a fuss and you’ll be all right.
  2. Enter the bathing area and first take a shower and wash effusively with a lot of foam. After all, you’ll use the same bath as other people and you want the water to be clean. By taking a shower, you return the courtesy to everyone. When you leave your shower spot, rinse the shower seat. Shampoo and conditioner may also be provided and you can wash your hair as well.
  3. Now the time has come to go into the water. It’s very hot and you need to do it smoothly. No diving, no splashing . . . you’re about to enter that sacred shore that will free your mind and relax your body and so is everyone else. It’s customary to fill a bucket and pour the water over yourself a few times before entering the large bath.
  4. Always leave your towel outside the water. It’s rude to put your towel in the water. Japanese people sometimes fold their towel neatly and put it on their head. You can also leave your towel on the side. If it inadvertently falls in the water, it happens, dry it outside the bath.
  5. In all circumstances, keep your head out of the water. It’s easier to breathe, you know.

Hot springs are dedicated to relaxation and contemplation. Of course, you can discuss with your friends but do so in a quiet manner.

What do you do after a hot spring? Get a glass of water or tea and relax in the lounge area. You can also have dinner, a refreshing beer and just enjoy the time you’ve dedicated to yourself.

By Claire Ghyselen, from our ebook Through the Year at Kusatsu Onsen.

Additional Info: Read about three of Kusatsu’s top onsen here (Japanese).