I can’t tell you how many times foreigners asked me the same question over and over “Even though we say Japanese are shy, how could you be naked in hot spring with others in Japan? You guys are so crazy!” To begin, we call hot springs “Onsen (=温泉)” in Japanese. For Japanese, because being naked in onsen is so usual and normal, we do not see it as embarrassing at all.
We Japanese grow up with taking a bath with soaking tubs that are very deep so your entire body is covered. Even though most have such tubs at home, we till yearn to go to the onsen because natural hot springs have a lot of positive impacts for our body, compared to just boiled hot water. The water is from the earth and is very natural so bathing in the onsen is very good especially for our health and skin. This is one of the reasons why the Japanese average life is one of the highest in the world, I believe.
Unfortunately, I’ve found that many foreigners cannot have as good an onsen experience as Japanese locals because of the lack of information. There are so many onsen that seem like they are straight out of a dream or a movie. Beyond anything you could expect! So here, I, an onsen lover, who goes to the hot springs at least once a week, will teach you all you need to know about onsen: how to find the best onsen in Japan, hacks to have the proper onsen etiquette and experience, and allow you not to look out of place.
The word ‘Onsen’, also known as ‘Yu = hot water’ (=ゆ) means a lot. There are many types of onsen. Knowing what onsen really is will allow you to differentiate between natural hot springs, and plain hot water.
DEFINITION OF ONSEN
According to Onsen law clause No.2, onsen is defined if it’s
- Hot water, mineral water, vapor or other gas (expect natural gas hydrocarbons as a main component) from underground
- the temperature of the water is more than 25 degrees.
In cases where the water temperature is below 25 °C, if the water contains certain determined constituents, it’s also called onsen.
There is another type of establishment called sento (=銭湯). There one can take a bath like at the onsen. Although onsen are controlled by the Ministry of the Environment, sento are controlled by each individual prefecture.
In general sento’s hot water is well water. Simply, it’s like a public bath. Price controlling laws haven’t existed passed the Second World War as nowadays most have a bath at home. However because the Japanese government still considers sento to be a place for socializing and communication it feels the need to protect it, sento are pretty cheap = under 500 yen under to the law.
SENTO ≒ ONSEN?
Now the confusing part even for Japanese is that some of sento are also onsen, as they use natural hot spring water. So you can bathe in a real onsen at a sento. So how can we know if the sento has an onsen? The only way to know it is to check if it’s written somewhere “Tennen Onsen (=天然温泉)” which means “Natural Onsen”. If you find a sento somewhere near you, check out if it’s real onsen or not.
These years the number of sento is disappearing because most people have their own bath at home as I mentioned before. Sento have started to change with the times. Before sento were often described as ‘small’ but now there are some sento called “Super Sento”, “Super Place” (Ah yes. Japanese love to use ‘super’ lol), and “Health Land”. In general, these sento are pretty big with many facilities such as a restaurant, relaxing room, movie theater, etc.
Me personally, I like sento, however, onsen is where you can really encounter typical Japanese culture, I’d recommend you to go to the onsen!
HOW TO FIND THE BEST ONSEN IN JAPAN
According to the Japanese Onsen research institute, there are over 3,000 onsen all over Japan. The highest number of onsen is in Hokkaido (the northernmost island) where there are 245 onsen. Now you see the point? The importance here is you must to know which is the best onsen to go to.
I must first tell you a word, “Higaeri Onsen (=日帰り温泉)”, which means, those onsen are available for day-trippers. I will tell you later but some onsen such as those within ‘Ryokan’ are available only for inn patrons, not for day-trippers.
Furthermore, if you are interested in going to the onsen but you do not feel comfortable being naked around others, here is one option: private onsen baths (=貸切温泉). It costs a bit more but you gain comfort out of it.
To begin, I’d like to explain the very famous onsen spots in Japan. Again, please make sure to check if it’s for day-trippers if you go to those onsen spots.
HAKONE ONSEN: 箱根温泉
One of the famous Onsen spots in Japan is Hakone (= 箱根). From Tokyo to Hakone, it takes 73 minutes by train. Many Japanese people from Tokyo tend to go to Hakone Onsen for a day trip. In this Hakone Onsen area, you can easily access different onsen. One of advantage of going to Hakone is that you can visit some famous touristic spots at the same time. Though Hakone is pretty big with 3 areas, Hakoneyumoto, Tounosawa, Ohiradai, transport is well organized and easy to access.
Download The Hakone Map
*There is no website in each language
and the map indicates onsen for day-trippers (yellow box on the picture) and the bus stop (pink circle on the picture).
KUSATSU ONSEN: 草津温泉
Each time I visit Kusatsu (= 草津) Onsen, it reminds me of Rotorua in New Zealand. In Kusatsu Onsen, it smells strongly of sulfur everywhere. There you can find a lot of open-air baths but most of them don’t have a corner for washing your body. Kusatsu Onsen is located about 200 km north of Tokyo and is surrounded by nature. It’s a very small village but there are so many onsen you should try.
SHIRIYAKI ONSEN: 尻焼温泉
Last time when I went there with my friend from New Zealand, we decided to go to Kusatsu and try a public free onsen called “Shiriyaki Onsen”; ‘shiri’ mean fess and ‘yaki’ means burning. I mean… It’s a river! Personally, I’ve never experienced such a free public river onsen and what I’ve found was there are so many naked old people, especially grandpas.
Normally we tend to wear a swimsuit when we are at a public onsen but it may not be an obligation like where I’ve been. Even though we took our swimsuits on, we felt so embarrassed. To go to this public river onsen, you need to use a public bus. Here is a map you should check! Because this is a free public onsen, you can go there as you want but because there are not so many buses for going to Shiriyaki Onsen, you’d best check the time schedule first!
In general, it opens 24/24h.
Naganohara-kusatsuguchi Station (=長野原草津口駅)
Do I recommend to go to Shiriyaki Onsen? Well, because this onsen is unisex, I recommend going there among friends or as a couple to have fun! On the other hand, because you may have to face many naked Japanese, it could be hard and stressful for those foreigners who haven’t been to an onsen before. Also it’s not for kids because the moss underwater is very slippery. Don’t forget, there is no changing room.
GERO ONSEN: 下呂温泉
Gero Onsen spot is located in Gifu prefecture which takes – minutes from Tokyo. In Geron Onsen, there is an onsen pass “Yumeguri-tegata” (=湯巡り手形) and if you pay 1,300 yen to get this, you can go 3 different onsen. In average going to one onsen costs – yen so this onsen pass is much cheaper if you want to try different onsen in Gero. However, personally, I don’t think you will visit all three onsen for a day because bathing in an onsen makes us tired too, changing clothes, drying hair, etc.
In the official site, there is a map of Gero Onsen but couldn’t find the whethe they accept day-trippers. So I search for each onsen and here are the onsen where you can go for a day trip. However, some information is missing so you’d better ask for further information at the tourist office.
SHIMA ONSEN: 四万温泉
Shima Onsen is pretty close to Kusatu Onsen. Since the Edo period, people have been going to Shima Onsen after Kusatsu because Shima Onsen’s hot water is much milder than Kusatsu’ one which has high sulfur contents. In another word, Shima Onsen is called “Shimai-yu” which means ‘shimai’=finish and ‘yu’=hot water.
SHIMA ONSEN SEKIZENKAN: 四万温泉積善館
In Shima Onsen, there is a Ryokan (=Inn) called “Shima Onsen Sekizenkan” (=四万温泉積善館) which Ghibli has modeled the movie “Spirited Away” (=千と千尋の神隠し) from. In Shima Onsen Sekizenkan, you can go to the onsen for a day trip so if you are a big fan of Ghibli, don’t miss it 😀. Note that there is a mixed bath in addition to the gender segregated ones.
The very cool thing about Shima Onsen Sekizenkan is that you can participate in an unusual historical trip that the owner shows of the building for free. As its official site says, it may be canceled because the owner is pretty old but in general, it’s held everyday.
I found an official video. Even though the second video is in Japanese, you can still see how beautiful this onsen is.
11:00-17:00 (last reception is 16:00).
Nakanojo Station (=中之条駅)930円、子供460円 *However, from this station you need to catch a bus and get off at the last stop. ¥930 ($) for adults and ¥460 ($) for kids, for one way. For further information, please check on the web above.
Price for just the regular onsen: ¥1,200 ($) for adults. ¥800 ($) for between 8-13-year-olds. Free for under 2 years-olds.
Meeting Point: Main Building on 3rd floor イ-8 Street in old room =本館 3階、イ-8通り旧客室
Booking not required
Because the train station isn’t close form this onsen, I recommend you take a direct bus from Tokyo Station Yaesu Exit from 9:00 am (or 10:45 am from 1st November to 6th May), if you go there from Tokyo. You get off at the final stop.
One way: ¥3,100 ($), both ways:¥5,100 ($) for adults. One way: ¥1,750 ($), both ways:¥2,750 ($) for between 6 and 12 year-old. You need to reserve the bus before on the website below.
*The schedule may change so please check it when you reserve
SO WHICH ONSEN IS BEST FOR ME?
I have my friend who is over 70 years old and have experienced a hundred of Onsen in his life. Let call him… Onsen Samurai! Although I’ve also been those Onsen spots, I simply asked him the differences between 3 spots of Onsen and here is his answer.
I have a friend who is over 70 years old who has experienced over a hundred onsen in his lifetyme. Let’s call him… Onsen Samurai! Although I myself have been to all these onsen, I asked Onsen Samurai what the differences between the three onsen are. Here is what he answered.
- Hakone is more modern
- Kusatsu is more country side
- Gero is easy to access from Nagura river, Gifu prefecture, Meiji-mura but it has lost its charm (in his opinion)
- Shima Onsen is VERY Onsen.
He emphasizes that it depend on our preference but “If you recommend onsen to foreign visitors?” I asked him, and he answered
I’d recommend Shiman Onsen.
According to him, Shiman Onsen has a very beautiful canyon and the thick steam rising form the onsen is unbelievable.
So if you don’t know which onsen you wanna go to, Shiman Onsen could be your choice!
RECOMMENDED ONSEN IN TOKYO: SAYA-NO-YUDOKORO
If you’re planning to stay only in Tokyo and are looking to have the onsen experience, I recommend Maenohara Onsen Saya-no-yudokoro (=さやの湯処) in Tokyo. It’s located in Itabashi which is close to central Tokyo and is 8 minutes away from Shimura-Sakaue station via the Toei Mita line. What I like about this onsen is that you can enjoy various types of onsen such as jacuzzi, sauna, bedrock sauna, etc. Even though this onsen is quite new, all systems are based on old traditional styles and there are various items prepared (you have to pay for some items) so you can easily go to this onsen without preparation. Because of the number of buildings in Tokyo, it is quite hard to find a very opened-air onsen because it must be private but Saya-no-yudokoro you can experience a big open-air onsen which is why I really love this place.
Luckily, you have the choice to go to a private onsen if you want. The onsen is named ‘Akari’ and it costs ¥2,000 per hour. More info, please check the official site that I note below.
In this onsen, you can pay by credit card. (This is actually super rare).
10:00〜25:00 (last admission at 24:00)
Shimura-Sakaue Station (志村坂上駅) via Toei Mita Line *8 minutes walk from exit A2.
Price for just talking genral Onsen: Weekdays ¥870 ($) for adults. ¥550 ($) for under primary school. Weekend ¥1,100 ($) for adults. ¥750 ($) for under primary school.
Because this onsen is pretty famous in Tokyo, you should avoid crowded times such as weekends. Need to know the real time crowd Tracking? Check it here!
The very best way to go to the onsen is at the Ryokan(= 旅館), Japanese traditional inns. Not only can you enjoy bathing in hot spring but you can also experience traditional rooms and eat delicious Japanese meals. Staying at a ryokan costs around 10,000 yen (its cost really depends on the ryokan. If it’s super expensive, it’s easily above 100,000 yen for a night!).
We Japanese like to go to ryokan for occasional events. I really recommend you to go to a ryokan once during your visit to Japan. Talking about Ryokan, it is a tough question “Which Ryokan is the best in Japan?” to answer because of the high number of establishments. If you want to go to a ryokan to stay the night, please make sure to book as soon as possible. There are a few ryokan where you can book a night with a discount if it’s just before the day, like hotels. However, at most Ryokan, the price wouldn’t change even if booked the day before. So if you go to Ryokan, you’d’ better to book in advance to get a better room.
On the other hand, in some ryokan, day-trippers are accepted, those are known as Higaeri Onsen, as I explained before. In this case, you don’t need to book for the onsen. You can freely visit there and say “I just wanna bathe in the onsen 😀”.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING TO ONSEN?
In most onsen, shampoo and body soap are provided so no need to bring them (if you have any allergies, you’d better bring your own). So what should you bring to the onsen? Here are some important stuff you must bring!
BATH TOWEL AND FACIAL TOWEL
If you want, you can borrow a bath towel and a facial towel at the onsen. Most Japanese bring their own towels to save money. Normally they are a set and it costs around 300-500 yen. If you stay close to the onsen where you are heading, you can bring your own towels but if not, it could be useful to borrow them in my opinion.
They are not heavy but it takes space in your bag. If you bring your towels, don’t forget to bring a facial towel! I’ll let you know later why it’s so important!
*In sento, you must bring your own bath towel and a facial towel.
CHANGE OF CLOTHES AND UNDERWEAR
After bathing in the onsen, you feel like you’re reborn. Soft skin and perfect recovery. So if you forget to bring your clean clothes and put the same underwear you wore before, honestly, you’re gonna regret it a lot… In some onsen, you can buy new underwear in vending machines, but it’s expensive and you may not find your size because Japanese are often too tiny. So please bring your change of clothes, especially clean underwear!
SOME 100 YEN COINS
Before going to the onsen, keep some 100 yen coins in your pocket. In many onsen, you need to put 100 yen for using lockers for shoes and clothes. Once you finish using lockers, all 100 yen will be returned so please be relaxed and don’t be mad “Why should I pay for keeping my shoes!?”
If you have long hair as I do, you really need a hair tie. Because tying up your hair in the onsen which is one of the obligations, you have to hold your hair all the time in Onsen if you forget it. Again in some onsen, you can buy a hair tight in vending machines but it costs a lot.
HOW TO BATHE IN THE ONSEN PROPERLY
You must know proper onsen etiquette otherwise you’re gonna be out of place.
1. TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES!
Here is a Japanese tradition we still use,
裸の付き合い =naked relationship
I’m not talking about something sexual. No worries. This tradition explains that among close friends we love going to the onsen together. At the onsen we talk A LOT. We talk about recent news, worries, etc. For Japanese people onsen is also the place where you can open your mind and refresh mentally. I guess for some non-Japanese, taking your all clothes off seems super weird and embarrassing. Let’s just think about the song “Let it go” by frozen, Disney movie. All my foreign friends who went to the onsen with me, told me that it was not embarrassing after all. Good luck!
2. KEEP YOUR FACIAL TOWEL
A facial towel must be your bodyguard and using it makes you like Japanese. I’d say this is one of the biggest difference that I can see between Japanese and foreigners. You may imagine that all naked Japanese are walking to Onsen with confidence, sure there are some old people who seriously don’t care about being naked. But normally we use a facial towel to hide our body. This is the proper way to walk around the onsen.
However, you shouldn’t put a facial towel into the hot water. Never. This is strictly banned. So how can you keep your facial towel? Well, a common way for Japanese is to put it on the top of their head or keep it at the edge of the bath where you can lay it. On the other hand, you can use a facial towel to wash your body, too.
3. RINSE YOUR BODY WITH WARM WATER BEFORE ENTERING INTO ONSEN
Even if you want to dive into the onsen to hide your body, please rinse your body with hot water first. In general, there is a corner in front of the entrance where you can wash your body by using a bucket. The temperature of the onsen is pretty high but at this corner, the water is warm, not hot. Just get ready to take a bath by rinsing your body first.
4. ENJOY THE ONSEN
Again I have to remind you that the water of the onsen is pretty hot, around 38 degrees Celsius. So please make sure to put your feet first to get used to it and then put your entire body into the water. There are many types of onsen so you should try as many as possible. Some are with jet baths which loosen your muscles.
Taking open-air baths makes you feel like you’re in heaven. So please try to do it! At night you may see stars. Even on a raining day, it makes you feel special being in an open-air bath.
My very best recommendation is taking an open-air bath! These open-air baths are well protected so you don’t show your naked body to everyone. Here is the reason why you can find good onsen in the countryside. If the onsen is in the forest, for example, open-air baths are more open and you can see a super amazing view from the onsen. Hearing birds singing, the river’s running… Just beyond expectation!
Ah, and one more thing, you can try the sauna which most of onsen have. It’s super… SUPER HOT in the sauna room. I don’t recommend you to go there if you’re with kids. By the way, if a little boy less than 7-year-old want to stay with the mom, it’s possible to go to the women side.
I don’t think little kids like to go to saunas, though. Because the temperature is super high in the sauna, it promotes good blood circulations. If we go to sauna often, we can solve shoulder ache, stomachs ache, cold sensitivity, etc. In fact elderly people tend to go to the sauna a lot.
5. WASH YOUR BODY!
Once your body is warm enough, time to wash your body! Japanese say that it’s better to wash our body once our body is pretty warm so that your skin is more soft and washable. There is no washing space which is reserved, so take a place freely.
6. GO INTO THE ONSEN AGAIN BEFORE LEAVING
You feel more refreshed after washing your body. Before leaving, don’t dip into the onsen once again! Please make sure you try every type of onsen. When you leave from the onsen, you’d better not rinse your body with the shower because the natural hot water has a lot of positive effects for our skin, so all you have to do is just wipe your body lightly with a facial towel before going back to the changing room.
7. DRINK FREE WATER AND PUT CLOTHES ON
After bathing in the onsen, you’re gonna be so thirsty. You’ll find water free water in the changing room so make sure to drink up. Because onsen are pretty hot, you may feel dizzy so you need to drink water. And at the same time, please put your clothes on before catching a cold.
8. DRINK MILK
Somehow this is a tradition at the onsen. Japanese people drink a bottle of milk after taking a bath. Right hand with a bottle of milk and left hand is on your waist. You may see this scene in Anime with this pose. Among close friends, we still do this for laughs.
CAUTIONS FOR BATHING IN AN ONSEN
I’ve already mentioned some of the rules above such as not putting your facial towel into the onsen, hiding your body lightly with it while walking, etc. But there are still more rules that you have to respect.
PEOPLE WITH VISIBLE TATTOOS ARE NOT ALLOWED
Please don’t be mad at me if you have a tattoo. Well according to Japanese history, tattoo has been a symbol of gangsters. You’ve may heard about Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Therefore in most onsen, people with tattoos are strictly prohibited. One of main reasons why people with tattoos are not allowed is not to make others uncomfortable.
Even though I do think some tattoos are kinda art and beautiful, I’m not an exception who make a little distance if I see Japanese with a tattoo whom I don’t know well. When we see foreigners with tattoos, we don’t treat you the same way as Japanese so don’t worry. You guys are welcome, of course! It’s gonna be a huge problem if Onsen says “If you are Japanese with a tattoo, you’re not allowed to enter but if you are foreigners with a tattoo, it’s ok!” Racist! lol
Nowadays the idea toward tattoo is changing a lot. People think it’s a part of fashion. Therefore some onsen have started changing their role to allow people with a tattoos. If you have a tattoo, please check out this TATOO Friendly Japan!
DON’T MAKE MISTAKE FOR WOMAN/MAN SIDE
It’s clearly separated by sex, but in some Onsen, you can’t see the symbol, because it’s all written in Kanji, you may make a huge mistake. In fact, some of my friends actually did that… Please make sure that if you see 女, it means woman. If you see 男, it means man. And normally red signifies woman, blue signifies man.
DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL BEFORE BATHING INTO THE ONSEN
If you bathe in the onsen after drinking alcohol, it is actually super dangerous because you no longer control your body temperature and it risks to cause an attack of cerebral anemia. I actually didn’t know this fact and it once happened to me. Because I was out of control, I slept for more than one hour in the bath and when I woke up, I even couldn’t stand up properly… What a shame lol If you go to the ryokan, go to the onsen first before eating dinner so that you can feel free to drink as much as possible!
AVOID GOING TO THE ONSEN ON WEEKENDS
In Japan, the weekend is when people are moving a lot. It’s not like Europe where many shops are closed during weekends. So please keep in mind that if you want to go to an onsen, ryokan, etc, it’s better to go there on weekdays. Talking about onsen and ryokan (or inn) it costs much more on weekends.
In addition, if there are too many people at the onsen, you may have to wait to washing your body because of lack of space. I, onsen lover, always avoid the weekend if I want to go to the onsen. If you have a choice, please make sure to go on weekdays!
DON’T BRING TOO MUCH MONEY
Please keep in mind that you should bring cash, not only credit card all the time in Japan. Still in many onsen especially the old ones, you cannot pay by card. However, in some onsen, especially sento, there are no boxes where you can keep your stuff ( like the photo which shows an old style changing room). Just in case, please make sure not to bring too much money. Even though Japan is generally very safe, there is a risk you might lose your money.
SUMMARY: CHECK LIST FOR CHOOSING THE BEST ONSEN IN JAPAN
As I told you before, even for Japanese people it’s pretty hard to say which onsen is the best. “Then how Japanese chose the onsen if they visit somewhere they don’t know?” Well, there is a way how we find the best onsen. I’ll let you know our secret checklist for choosing the best onsen!
- Access to the onsen
- Natural onsen or not / Day-trippers are allowed or not
- Aesthetics of the onsen
I’m pretty sure that most check these four points in order to decide on the onsen. First, access to the onsen. As I mentioned before, many of the best onsen are in the countryside, in somewhat hidden places, so often it’s super hard to reach those onsen. In some cases you really need a car to go so when you’re choosing an onsen or ryokan, you must check if it’s accessible before booking.
Second, you need to check if the onsen is natural or not and also whether day-trippers are allowed or not. Again onsen doesn’t mean they are all natural hot springs and available for day-trippers. So please keep this in mind and check if it’s natural. If you want to go to the onsen within an inn, please do not forget to check also if they accept day-trippers. In order to know if it’s natural or not, check the word ‘natural’, 天然 (=tennen)” in Japanese. If you see this character, it’s a natural onsen! Also, onsen for day-trippers = 日帰り温泉.
Third, the aesthetics of the onsen. Even though pictures don’t tell us every detail, you can still get an idea from them to find the best onsen. On the web site, each onsen shows what they look like. Personally, an open-air onsen is the most important thing. I always check if there is an open-air onsen and what it looks like.
Fourth, the last thing is time. If you visit the onsen from Tokyo, for example, it takes quite some time and you can be super upset if the onsen is closed when you arrive. Some are closed very early and some are opened 24 hours. Especially if you go to the onsen at the end of the day, for example, you must check out when the onsen closes. Planning, guys! Planning!
To end, Unfortunately, there are few onsen websites in English. So when you check some onsen websites, please make sure to use the Japanese words below.
- 住所 or アクセス = address
- 時間 = time
- 休館日 = closed day
- 料金 or 価格 = price