- Onsen fees
- What to bring
- Changing areas
- Bathing areas
- Onsen etiquette
- After bathing
- Onsen food and drink
Going to an onsen—a natural hot spring—is a must-see and must-do when visiting Japan. The onsen waters are some of the most relaxing and healing in the world. Strip away your shyness—and prepare for a comforting, refreshing, and healing experience.
An onsen is a hot spring and one of the most popular attractions in Japan. They are usually warmer than 25° Celsius and have at least one of the nineteen official elements, including lithium, sulfur, sodium chloride, and iron. If an onsen meets those conditions with geothermally heated springs, they are called tennen onsen (天然温泉) or "natural" onsen. Jinko-onsen (人工温泉) or "man-made" onsen, on the other hand, meets these conditions artificially.
An onsen differs from a sento, a public Japanese bathhouse that uses heated tap water instead of water with special minerals. Sento are more common in major cities, and if you get to visit one, you’ll find a lot of locals relaxing in and enjoying the warm water.
As you travel through Japan, you might encounter different types of onsens.
Day-use onsens are open to the public. Make a reservation or just show up and take a dip and relax in the waters. The admission fee depends on the size and quality of service provided; it can cost between JPY 300 to 2000 (about $3 to $20). If possible, bring your towels, and don't forget to wash your body before entering the bath.
If you are too shy to try full-body soaking at an onsen, Ashiyu, a bath where you soak your feet in a small pool filled with hot spring water, offers a taste of the Onsen experience as a casual alternative. An Ashiyu is usually free and can be found near hot spring towns. So, sit back and relax your muscles while you soak away your tired feet.
Some onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) or hotels have their own hot spring. You can only access these when you book a room and spend the night, though several hotels offer day use too. Depending on the type of hotel, you might encounter three different kinds of onsen:
• Public - large public baths separated by men and women; free if you’re staying in the hotel
• Private - private onsen in a hotel that you need to reserve ahead of time; may have a separate cost
• In-room onsen - rooms that come with a private open-air bath or onsen tub; usually cost more and need pre-reservation as they are popular
Toji (hot water cure) is the practice of bathing in an onsen for healing purposes. This ancient custom in Japan has been passed down for centuries, and there are certain mineral-rich hot springs dedicated to it. Toji requires staying for a time in an onsen ryokan for the body to soak in all the minerals and healing benefits from the hot spring water. Some of the benefits include:
Onsen water is full of natural elements that your body absorbs as you bathe. These minerals increase the amount of oxygen in the blood and improve blood flow and circulation.
Soaking in an onsen bath is one of the best ways to relax. The hot spring water helps you relax by relieving your tense muscles, and the peaceful surroundings of most Japanese onsens help clear your mind. You’ll find that you sleep better after an onsen bath.
Onsen water acts as buoyancy for those with aching joints. Floating free lets your muscles relax and recover, so there is no pressure on your body. This leads to less muscle tension, stress, and anxiety, which helps relieve your pain.
Many onsens have become famous for beautifying the skin. Some onsens contain silica, which smooths and softens dry and rough skin. If you are suffering from eczema or psoriasis, look for an onsen with sulfur which helps ease the itchiness.
If it’s your first time visiting an onsen, there’s no need to be nervous. Keep the following rules in mind for a great onsen experience:
Onsen entrance fees range anywhere between JPY 200-2,000, but some of the good ones fall between JPY 400-800. You can bring your own bath towel, though some onsens provide towels or let you rent one.
If you stay at a traditional Japanese-style Inn (Ryokan), they offer a yukata to guests. Yukata is light cotton kimono-style clothing worn after taking a bath, as a pajama, or simply to relax. You can find it in your room or receive one at the reception desk. Bring a yukata and obi, a belt to tie your yukata along with a hand towel to wash your body, and a drying towel provided in the room. Although Japan is a very safe country with very little crime, do not bring valuables to store in the cubby while you bathe.
Changing rooms have combs, hairdryers, and other amenities that are free to use. You can use a basket in a cubby or locker to leave your personal belongings. Use a basket that is upside down. It means that it is clean and available to use.
Onsens usually have separate bathing areas for men and women. If an onsen serves both men and women, it is usually at different times. Make sure you know the correct time before you use it.
In general, you can't wear anything in the bathing area. (It’s best to double-check, as some onsen—especially the unisex ones—allow you to cover up.) If you feel conscious, you can cover yourself up with an onsen towel before entering the water. Walk carefully, as some of the onsen minerals make the floor slippery.
Some onsen establishments have different baths with varying mineral compositions. Try out the different ones (check if they have an extra fee), but you don’t need to shower every time you enter a new one. Only your body must enter the water so you can place your hand towel at the side of the bath or on top of your head.
Take a shower to cleanse yourself before bathing. Most onsens provide soap and shampoo for you to use. If not, you have to buy some. It’s best not to eat before bathing in the onsen, but you need to drink a lot of water before and after your onsen bath.
Keep your bath to a minimum. Staying too long may cause dehydration. While an onsen is relaxing and beneficial to your health, it’s generally not a good idea to enter more than three times a day.
Several onsens still ban tattoos because of the cultural connotation between tattoos and the yakuza (Japanese mafia). Some onsens, however, have relaxed their rules about tattoos, but it’s better to ask ahead of time. You might be asked to cover it up or may even be refused entry.
If you are bathing with companions, you can chat, but be considerate of the other guests and keep the noise level down. Diving, splashing, and swimming are prohibited in the onsen. Photography isn’t allowed in most onsens either.
After your bath, it's best not to wash off at once so you don’t get rid of the beneficial minerals. You can also opt for a cold rinse which is also healthy and has its own benefits.
Some onsens have rest areas and massage chairs for you to try out in the lounge.
After your bath, you can try the Japanese cold milk after a hot bath. Take a sip of furutsu gyuunyuu (fruit milk) or koohii gyuunyuu (coffee milk) and try some onsen tamago (eggs slow-boiled in onsen water and steam). Some onsens even sell bottled onsen water that is rich in beneficial minerals.
Keep from getting dehydrated by drinking water, tea, or a sports drink after leaving the bath. Avoid alcohol as this will further dehydrate you.
When traveling through Japan, you can visit various types of onsen and onsen towns. Here’s a quick list of places you can include in your itinerary:
• Hakone - boasts of 17 well-known Japanese spas
• Ito - one of Japan top onsen towns with healing waters and scenic coastal views
• Atami - a favorite destination for couples; famous for their saltwater hot springs
• Kinugawa - an onsen town with theme parks and other amusements
• Yunishigawa - small onsen town famous for the Yunishigawa Kamakura Festival in the winter
• Nikko Yumoto - onsen town where hot water bubbles up from the ground
• Kinosaki - a charming, old-fashioned onsen town built along a river lined with willows
• Arima - popular onsen town with two types of hot spring water
• Yunohana - onsen with natural baths salts
• Shirahama - one of the three oldest hot springs in Japan
• Noboribetsu - onsen town with nine types of water, including sulfur-infused hot springs
• Jozankei - popular side trip destination from Sapporo with dozens of ryokan
• Lake Toya - popular hot spring resort town at the foot of Mount Usu
Get the Explorer Pass and visit different onsens around Japan.
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