Aside from the colourful street style and pop culture we know Japan for, the island nation is also visited for the variety of wellness practices and experiences it offers. One of the more popular ones are onsens, better known as Japanese hot springs. Known not only for its therapeutic effects but also for medicinal benefits for the mind and body, onsens can be found in almost every region and city in Japan — and there's no on- or off-season. Some even enjoy it most during winter because the soothing heat provides a great match against the freezing weather.
While it seems like a promising activity for many first-timers, there are still a lot of questions surrounding an onsen experience. After all, not all foreigners are accustomed to the idea of a public bath. If you're a first-timer, fret not. Here are some guidelines to make the most out of your onsen experience.
Yes, you have to dip in naked
Probably the top question every onsen first-timer asks on every travel forum is whether or not you can sport a swimsuit in a public onsen. The general answer is no. You have to remember that onsens are baths and not swimming pools. Its main purpose is to let the water soothe and cleanse your body. If you're scared of the thought of walking all over the place naked, don't be; public bathhouses provide small towels to help you cover up your privates as you walk to the water. However, remember to not dip these towels in the water but rather place them on your head/wrap them over your hair. You can unravel it again when you're ready to rise from the water.
The discussion on tattoos is also still a bit unclear because of the body art's cultural implications. It depends on the onsen owners whether they allow this or not. Ryokans (onsens with the option for lodging), as well as hotels in some areas, have already relaxed their rules on these. It's best to check first. Booking a private onsen is also an option if you're iffy to go naked around strangers or don't want the hassle of searching for a place that allows tattoos.
Rinse before you swoop in
While it is a bath, doing some primary cleansing before entering the hot spring should still be practised. Not only do you want to slough off excess dirt and grime with soap and water because you can't do so in the onsen itself, but cleaner and refreshed skin also takes in more of the therapeutic properties of the water. Make sure you also head to the restroom prior to entering the onsen because not all facilities have one in the changing room near the onsen.