Culture Clues & How-To’s: Japanese Onsen

Approximately a 5 minute read

This post on visiting a Japanese onsen is from a member of the Voyageer Contributor Team, Doug. Find out how to have your post featured here!

One of the experiences I looked forward to when we were planning our trip to Japan was to visit a Japanese onsen. Onsen are bath houses traditionally heated by geothermal water (hot springs). Japanese onsen culture dates back over 1,300 years, and is deeply intertwined in their society. Before heading to Japan, I spent a little time learning about the background and proper conduct of visiting onsen.

Photo by Seiya Maeda on Unsplash

Culture Cues for Japanese Onsen

Many types of onsen exist throughout Japan and there are tens of thousands in the country! Some are preserved natural outdoor springs; others are public indoor bathhouses. Many onsen are well-manicured indoor spas existing as amenities within traditional inns (ryokans) or even upscale, modern hotels. Staci and I got to see both kinds. Two of our hotels included onsen, and we viewed some beautiful naturally occurring spas that people do not get into (below), but the colors, smells and steam swirling around them were unique and incredible!

I learned that in Shinto religion, kami or gods/spirits are believed to inhabit nature, and thus water is considered a divine substance. Water is used to purify one’s hands and mouth when entering a shrine, and bathing is seen by some as a way to bring good fortune or stave off disease. After learning this, it was apparent how this relationship to water is such a widely practiced part of Japanese life and one that I was excited to experience as a visitor. 

All Japan posts from The Voyageer

Our Onsen Experience

Tattoos covered!

The onsen that we got a chance to dip into and relax in were the hotel amenity-style public baths. At our hotel in Kyoto (read the review here), the room included robes and slippers, and directions to the onsen on the first floor. Onsen are typically divided into men and women’s facilities. Tattoos are prohibited in many traditional onsen as they were often associated with a history of Japanese Yakuza gang members. In Kyoto I had to purchase adhesive stickers similar to large band-aids from the front desk to cover up my tattoos. There are many tattoo friendly onsen in Japan, so be sure to check the specific one online beforehand, consult this site, or ask your hotel concierge what their policies are. 

At our hotel in Beppu, there was a community onsen (again split by gender) complete with anti-tattoo policies. However, our room had an amazing, deep, hot spring tub on a private patio. I highly recommend booking at least one hotel or ryokan with this feature during your visit to Japan.

How to Approach an Onsen

As you make your way to the onsen, you will first walk into a locker room, leaving your slippers at a designated area before stepping up into the room or on tatami. You’ll choose a locker or bin to hold your belongings, and strip down to your birthday suit to proceed to the bath area. Make sure to bring your towel with you!

Photo by Roméo A. on Unsplash

The bathing areas are generally divided into two spaces; the large, hot onsen bath, and a shower area. The shower area is stocked with soaps and shampoos. Each station has a convenient hand-held shower and buckets for rinsing. One should thoroughly clean themselves at the shower area before getting in the hot bath.

After washing, proceed to enter and relax in the onsen bath. When you’re finished, rinse in the shower area, and exit to the locker room the way you entered. Many onsen locker rooms even have nice mirror and sink areas stocked with hair dryers, combs, lotions etc. to complete the relaxing experience.

Reflecting on Visiting a Japanese Onsen

It was a bit intimidating the first time I tried the onsen; entering a space I didn’t know and being naked with strangers. I didn’t want to commit any social faux pas: I wanted to experience the culture, and ensure I was doing so with knowledge of the practices, mindfulness and respect. 

After the first visit, I became comfortable with the process and returned to the onsen several times throughout the trip at multiple hotels! I highly recommend visiting many onsen when visitng Japan. They are a great way to relax sore muscles from very busy days filled with walking and sightseeing. More importantly, they are also a glimpse into the history and culture of a beautiful country and amazing people who treat everything they do with precise attention to detail and respect.

Another Japan guest post by Doug: Attending a Japanese Baseball Game

Guest post written by Doug Jackson. All photos by Doug and Staci Jackson for The Voyageer, unless noted.

Voyageer Contributor Team

The Voyageer Contributor Team is made up of writers who crave new experiences at familiar and unfamiliar locations. We are pleased to feature posts, articles, and reflections from a diverse group. Visit and click the 'contact me' page to join the team.


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