One of the highlights of traveling around Japan is a relaxing stay at a Japanese onsen (hot springs) resort.
Hot springs are common in many countries, but what makes Japan unique is the onsen culture, which blends an appreciation of nature with a sophisticated philosophy. Here is your guide to onsen – the different types, the best times and places to go, and the all-important onsen etiquette.
What to Wear
This one’s easy: nothing. Onsen are for naked soaks, save for the rare variety (such as urban onsen theme parks like Tokyo’s Oedo Monogatari) that allow bathing suits.
Types of Onsen Baths
Most onsen will have one or more indoor baths, and these are usually gender-separated. At some onsen, the indoor bath is actually the main attraction, due to its history, architecture, or views. A great example of this is the historic Chojukan Hoshi Onsen in Gunma Prefecture.
Rotenburo (Open-air Onsen)
Bathing in natural hot springs while feeling the refreshing mountain air is the pinnacle of the onsen experience. At some onsen, the rotenburo are gender-separated, while others offer kon’yoku (mixed bathing). Tsurunoyu Onsen in Akita Prefecture (pictured further below) has an iconic kon’yoku rotenburo, which is at its most magical in the dead of winter. There is nothing quite like soaking in a remote onsen in the middle of the snowy woods.
These days, most onsen are gender-separated, to the chagrin of many onsen purists. If you’d like to be able to share the onsen experience with your opposite-sex partner, family member, or friend, you’ll need a mixed-bathing, private in-room, or private rental onsen.
Kon’yoku Onsen (mixed bathing)
Some traditional onsen are for both sexes. These are ideal if you’re going with family or friends of the opposite sex. Although for some it can be intimidating at first, keep in mind that everyone is naked and no one is looking at anyone else. And, while you do bathe in the nude, you are provided with a small towel with which to cover up as you dash from the changing room to the baths (some onsen even provide robes). Given this unique element of Japanese culture, it’s worth overcoming shyness in order to enjoy a true kon’yoku rotenburo experience.
Private In-room Onsen
Many high-end, and even some mid-range onsen ryokan offer private in-room onsen. These are generally private outdoor hot spring baths attached to the room, usually with a view. This upmarket option is ideal for honeymoons or romantic getaways, or for families with young kids and/or those who prefer to wear swimsuits.
Kashi-kiri Onsen (private rental onsen)
Many ryokans will offer a kashi-kiri onsen, a private bath available through advance booking. In general, these can be booked by the hour and are open to anyone – couples, families, and groups of friends.
Hi-gaeri Onsen (day-use onsen)
Hi-gaeri onsen are ryokan onsen that can be used by non-guests. Many ryokan offer a day-use option, and if you time it right, you may be able to enjoy a meal at the ryokan too.
There are just a few codes of conduct you need to know (for even more tips on how to be polite see our primer on Japanese etiquette).
Wash yourself thoroughly before you enter an onsen. If everyone enters the onsen sparkly clean, the onsen stays clean. Before you reach the onsen itself, you’ll pass through a changing room and a shower room. Here you disrobe, place your garments in the basket or locker provided (everything but your small onsen towel, which you will take with you), and shower.
The Onsen Towel
Whatever you do, keep it out of the water. This rule is in place to ensure the onsen waters remain immaculate. Most people place it on their heads, tie it around their foreheads, or lay it somewhere near the edge of the bath.
If you are Japanese and have tattoos, you will probably not be allowed to use a shared or public onsen. Tattoos have traditionally been associated with the yakuza (transnational organized crime syndicates), and excluding tattoo-clad visitors purportedly keeps the dangerous elements out. If you are not Japanese and have tattoos, you may or may not be allowed to bathe in a shared or public onsen, but you should be fairly safe so long as your tattoos are not offensive. If they’re small, you may be able to cover them with a Band-Aid. If this is not possible, you can fall back on a private onsen.
During the day, it is considered uncouth to imbibe in an onsen. At night, however, it is fairly common to see people consuming nihonshu (sake) while bathing. Be careful: the combination of drinking and onsen-bathing can be dangerous if you drink too much. Know your limits, and don’t get rowdy, as that’s a surefire way to be booted from a public onsen.
The Ideal Season for Onsen
Onsen and ryokan are beautiful year-round. Lunch and dinner menus change seasonally along with the views: in spring, the sakura; in summer, the lush green foliage; in fall, the autumn colors; in winter, the snowy landscape.
Each season has its charms, but our favorite time of the year for an onsen soak is the dead of winter. Being outside in an onsen with the snow swirling around you is a delight. Each region of Japan has its own unique weather patterns, but the further north you are, the more snow there will be. Most snowfall is between December and February. We also enjoy springtime soaks, when you can gaze out at the beautiful cherry blossom trees, although taking in the fiery autumnal foliage is equally dazzling.
Our Favorite Onsen in Japan: a Selection
Many luxury ryokan have onsen. However, since they are so widely used, there are plenty of less expensive options as well.
Tsurunoyu (鶴の湯) at Nyuto Onsen (乳頭温泉)
One of our favorite onsen. Tsurunoyu is ancient, remote, and a completely different world. Located deep in the woods of Akita prefecture, Tsurunoyu is a true refuge from the world at large. Akita is located in the far north of Japan’s main island, Honshu, on the way to Hokkaido. In the winter it receives plenty of snow. It’s cold enough for igloos to stand at the entrance to the property. At night, these are lit from within by candles and light the path to the ryokan’s rustic dining area.
Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park
You’ve probably seen photos of cute pink-faced snow monkeys sitting on rocks beside onsen. The Japanese Macaque can be found in Jigokudani Yaenkoen, Yamanouchi, Nagano prefecture. If you go to Jigokudani Yaenkoen Park, you’ll see them playing in the snow, swimming and soaking in the onsen, and hanging out in groups having a blast, all while visitors snap photos.
If you don’t have time to get out of Tokyo, pay a visit to Oedo Onsen Monogatari. Think of this as an onsen theme park in which you are allowed to wear a bathing suit. It has six types of baths, including a lukewarm bath ideal for summer and one in which you can lie down. Water is pulled from 1,400 meters underground. Beyond the baths is a tranquil Japanese garden, a foot bath where tiny fish nibble at your feet, places to eat, and a relaxation room. Signage is in Japanese and English, so it’s easy to understand what’s going on.
And finally, there’s the Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns, which has a comprehensive list of onsen worth perusing.
If you have time to squeeze in a relaxing and invigorating onsen visit during your stay in Japan, we would definitely recommend giving it a try. This experience is a crucial part of the Japanese culture. There are many different types of onsen, so you can pick the one that appeals to you the most.