Most of us have had them. Those travel faux pas moments that leave you feeling like the dumb foreigner instead of the seasoned traveler you set out to be.
Japan is one of those countries that has a generous number of faux pas opportunities. They lurk around cultural corners waiting for you, the innocent visitor, to unknowingly stumble in. If you’re seeking a spa experience in Japan, then a visit to a Japanese onsen, the traditional Japanese bath, is probably on your list of things to do. But it’s a faux pas minefield if you’re not in the know.
So how do you avoid a red face if you want to experience all that a Japanese onsen has to offer?
It’s all about knowing the etiquette
Japanese onsens come in all shapes and sizes. Some are indoor. Some are outdoor. A few are mixed sex. Most are single sex only. And if you really want to splash out for that special person you’re traveling with, stay at a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan and indulge in your own private onsen.
But whatever your choice of flavor, the rules remain the same. And knowing the rules beforehand is a big part of making sure this experience lives up to your expectations:
1. Be comfortable in your birthday suit
Without exception, a visit to a Japanese onsen will involve going naked for the time that you’re in the bathing area. Swimsuits or clothing of any kind are not allowed, although a small (flannel size) modesty towel is usually provided.
Why this rule? Onsens are the ultimate place in Japanese culture to relax and cleanse the body and soul. Garments are considered to pollute the purity of the volcanic waters that feed the baths and so are not permitted into the bathing area.
2. Shower before you enter the hot spring
Again, because of the purity of the volcanic waters and the healing powers they are believed to possess, the hot spring bath itself is not a place for soap and shampoo.
When you enter the changing room at an onsen, you will see a shower area just beyond the lockers. Place your clothes in the locker, put the key around your wrist, and then make your way naked with your modesty towel to the shower area. Even if you had a shower right before coming to the onsen, you must wash yourself here, including your hair, before you get into the onsen itself.
3. Know your changing room kanji
Although it’s not as important as the first two rules, it’s a good idea to know the kanji for female and male before you arrive at your onsen.
Many onsens now provide pictorial assistance to support the written kanji so it’s easy to figure out which door you need to enter. But the more traditional and old-fashioned onsens may still leave you scratching your head. It’s definitely better to know this one in advance than to start your onsen experience by wandering into the wrong changing room!
4. Excluding tattoos and body art
They’re a part of everyday life in many cultures these days, and are as widely accepted as your credit card in most places you’ll visit. However, just as can happen with your credit card in Japan, your tattoos may not be accepted when you try to enter a Japanese onsen.
The reason is a historical one. The Japanese mafia, the Yakuza, traditionally mark themselves with some really incredible body art. These are not singular tattoos but entire sleeves and, in many cases, suits of tattoos. And it is these tattoos that mark them as Yakuza.
As a result, Japanese onsens have barred tattoos for many years in order to maintain a relaxed and peaceful atmosphere for visitors. And although some onsens may now let you in if you have a single tattoo, it is still the prerogative of the establishment to turn you away if they wish.
What do you do if you have a small tattoo but want to try out an onsen experience? The best thing is to cover the tattoo with a small plaster (bandaid) or white medical tape. This is still no guarantee of entry, but has worked in most cases for people I know.
And finally, rule number five…
5. Watch out for the heat
Japanese onsens are hot. The water is piped directly from hot spring sources and you’ll usually find temperature gauges close to each bath that indicates just how hot the water is.
Don’t be surprised to see your fellow Japanese bathers slip straight into the water without batting an eyelid. But don’t try and copy them unless you’re absolutely certain you can cope with the heat. Start with a toe and slowly dip yourself into the water.
Once you’re in, be careful how long you stay in. Your body will naturally sweat in these conditions and it’s not unheard of for people to faint if they don’t take a break every so often. Many onsens have cold plunge pools or, alternatively, you can head back to the showers for a cold wash down when you need it.
What’s the bottom line? After following all the cultural rules to get you into your onsen bath, the last thing you want is a red face because you’ve pulled a naked faint in front of your fellow bathers. Take a break every so often to make sure you’re not overheating.
So, with all these rules, is a Japanese onsen experience worth it?
Most definitely yes! After living in Japan for 10 years, a visit to an onsen remains at the top of my list of favorite things to do.
I’ll never forget my first experience when I arrived not realizing that I would have to go naked if I wanted to enter the bath. And yes, I definitely was red-faced for a few minutes while I checked my modesty at the door. But this was soon forgotten once I felt the calm and peace that surrounded me.
My top recommendation? Try an outdoor Japanese onsen for an experience that’s truly exotic.
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Honor Dargan | Honor has lived in Japan for 10 years and traveled extensively in Asia, South America and Europe, as well as some areas in the USA. Her favorite reasons for travel are to get a peek inside a culture through visits to local events and festivals, and learning more about the history and people of a place. Then there's always food. Of course! And the journey itself is just as important a part of her adventures. Honor's top three travel destinations are Japan, Uruguay, and Jordan.