I spent the last week in a Ryokan (旅館) in the mountains of Nagano prefecture.
It’s always a fantastic experience to reside in one of this traditional Japanese hotels. Their minimalistic interior with basically only tatami, futons and a table, the delicious food and the Onsen (温泉) that is attached to most of the them make it a fantastic and peaceful experience.
I personally enjoyed the Onsen, or hot spring bath, so much that whenever I had the opportunity, I went there. This was usually three times per day. What a great way to celebrate bathing!
In this article I want to give you the know how you need to enjoy your visit to an Onsen as much as I do.
This is the biggest and most important rule, but it is easily overlooked. While trying to confirm with etiquette, it is often forgotten to actually enjoy what one is doing. It is good to try to confirm with social norms, but please try not to be more catholic than the Pope. An Onsen gives you time with yourself, time to relax and refresh. Please allow yourself to appreciate it.
#2: Dress code
The dress code for almost every Onsen is: You wear nothing except your Onsen towel. There will be some kind of lockers or baskets in the change room to put your clothes when you undress. You can then use your small towel to cover yourself a bit.
Speaking of Onsen towels: Most of the private Onsen will provide them, most of the public ones without an entry fee won’t.
If you are wearing tatoos, please make sure you are allowed to enter in advance. Even if it is only a small one, most bathing houses will deny you access.
Here’s a story highlighting the negative connotations of tatoos in Japanese culture:
About two weeks ago, I went to a 7-eleven close to my home. I was standing in front of the fridge with the ice cream, still undecided which one I should choose. I noticed I was blocking the way for an older man, maybe in his early sixties. He was wearing long trousers and a dark polo shirt. I excused myself and made way to him. When he had passed me, I saw a peace of a tatoo on his arm showing showing from under his shirt. “Oh, maybe that’s a Yakuza (member of the Japanese mafia)” I thought to myself. I looked at his left hand and found confirmation by seeing that the top of his left finger had been cut off (Yubitsume).
In other words: Because Japanese people wearing tatoos are almost exclusively members of the Yakuza, tatoos are a no-go in most bath houses.
Once you have entered the Onsen, make sure to wash yourself before you get into the tub. In most indoor Onsen there will be showers, stools and washing bowls. Take a seat on a stool and wash yourself. Usually body soap, shampoo and conditioner will be provided. Please be considerate, so that you don’t splash water on your neighbors. Therefore, please stay seated.
Like the person on the image above you can use your towel as a washcloth. To do so, just get it wet, put some body soap on it and scrub yourself. Often there’s also a mirror for every seat, so if you want to shave, brush your teeth or similar, this is the place to do it.
If your body is already clean because you took a shower just before going to the Onsen, it is enough to symbolically pour water over yourself.
Once you are done, clean your space (the bowl, the stool and the shower fitting) with water from the shower or bowl. Then proceed to the tub.
#4: Time to relax: Inside the tub
The tub of an Onsen is filled with geothermally heated groundwater and its temperature can range from warm to extremely hot.
When entering the tub, make sure your Onsen towel and your head hair do not touch the water. If you have long hair, you can use the towel to keep it out of the water. If you have short hair, you can place your wet towel on your head so that you don’t faint when it’s getting too hot or just put it somewhere to the side of the tub.
If you are not used to hot water, you can sit on the frame with only your feed entering. Use your hands to pour some of the hot water over your upper body. Once you got accustomed to the heat, sit on the stair that usually leads into the tub. Take the time you need and after that, get your full body into the water (except for your head).
Now sit and enjoy.
At this point, please remember that an Onsen is not a swimming pool and that running, swimming and playing with the water are not welcome.
Once you’ve had enough, get out of the water. Since your skin now has been exposed to the hot and mineralized water for some time, old skin flakes will wash off more easy. Therefore, repeat steps #3 and #4.
Now that you are relaxed, clean and happy, it is time to go. Leave the hot tub slowly. Take a last short shower to get rid of the sweat. If you feel like it, make it a cold one (be extra cautious not to splash water at other people).
Use your Onsen towel to get rid of excess water so that the floor in the changing room doesn’t become slippery. Leave the bathing area, dry yourself and return into your daily live dress or Yukata if you brought one. Often there will be dryers or additional mirrors at some point. Sometimes cosmetic products will be provided as well.
Once you are done with your after-bath beauty procedure, get ready to leave.
Remember to drink a glass of water or two in order to rehydrate. Enjoy your relaxed body and do something joyful that is not too strenuous, like enjoying a kaiseki (懐石, traditional Japanese dinner).
Now you are prepared. As you have seen the essential steps are quiet simple: First wash yourself, then get into the tub. And whatever you do, enjoy the fantastic bathing experience!
Extra: Ryokan Room Tour
If you want to get a feeling of what a Ryokan’s room looks like, I’ve uploaded a video with a room tour, just for you. Take a look and enjoy the simplicity: