There are loads of things to see and do in Japan, but if you’re looking for a way to kick back and soak up the stunning surrounds, visiting a traditional Japanese onsen is just the ticket.
Because Japan is a volcanically active country, an estimated 3000 naturally warm hot springs dot the land in different shapes and sizes. They’ve been around forever, and the Japanese have been relaxing in them since about the eighth century. Some are indoors, some are outdoors, some will charge an entry free and others are free.
Whatever the case, they come with some pretty strict rules. To ensure your Japanese etiquette is up to scratch, here’s what you need to know before diving in.
#1 No Shower, No Soak
Onsens are for soaking, not bathing, so this one’s fairly straightforward, and something you should be routinely doing before taking a dip in any public pool.
You’re expected to wash your hair and be totally clean from head to toe before you enter the onsen. Most places should provide you with towels and a shower caddy, but we recommend bringing your own if you can — it’ll be a bit awkward if you’re caught without a towel.
#2 Swimmers Not Necessary
At traditional onsens, you’ll be getting your kit off — meaning no swimwear (or underwear) should touch the water. Onsen staff will generally provide a small hand towel for you to cover your privates while travelling to and from the pool or while you’re soaking.
#3 Tattoos Are Taboo
If you’re tatted up and don’t cover it up, you may be denied entry at most onsens. In Japan, tattoos are traditionally associated with members of the yakuza, an infamous gang known for facilitating organised crime.
While most places will forbid anyone with visible ink, there are ways of covering up. You can purchase temporary tattoo covers from most pharmacies or at the onsen itself. It’s best to come prepared, though.
#4 Avoid Shock, Read The Signs
You’re welcome to travel between pools while at an onsen, but make sure you pay attention to signs. While they’re rare, some onsens have electric pools. Yes, electric pools.
The electricity comes from rubber matting, which is visible on the walls of the pools — the closer you are, the stronger the current feels. The pools give you a pins-and-needles kind of sensation, expressed in Japanese as piri piri. Some find this relaxing, and there are even some supposed health benefits.
So, if you’re not into being zapped, keep your wits about you.
#5 Use Your Inside Voice
Onsens are a place for people to relax and meditate, so keep chatting to a minimal and please, for the sake of everyone around you, don’t whip out your phone and FaceTime your mates or start snapping selfies.
Staff will suggest you store your phone with your belongings before you enter the pool. We suggest you do the same.
(Lead image: Wikipedia Commons)