Whether you’re walking up the quiet hillside of Japan’s rural towns or moving your way through the bustling streets of one of its busy cities, you’ll never be too far off from a house of one of the local hot springs, called an onsen.
The environment of Japan’s lush islands is full of these hot springs, which has encouraged inhabitants to bring them into their everyday life and culture. Throughout history, their trips to the onsen have transformed into rituals of cleanliness, comfort, and clarity.
There are over 3000 onsen in total around the country – but no matter where you go, the rules will be the same.
Here’s what you need to know!
What is an onsen?
Onsen are bathing infrastructures around the many naturally occuring hot springs that are geothermically heated underground by the volcanic activity of the land.
What makes the water special?
These springs contain a variety of 19 minerals, some more present than others in depending on their location, and all believed to be highly beneficial for skin and health. The water is always at least 25 degrees celcius when it comes out of the ground, but it can be much hotter, and while this is known to be very good for blood circulation and muscle tension, it should be approached with proper hydration and time mediation.
Where can you find one?
Every city and town will have an onsen within or nearby it. Onsen can be both indoors and outdoors, and can be public or private.
What are the rules of using one?
The rules of onsen use are quite sacred and extremely strict, as follows:
1. You must bathe yourself before entering the onsen (a rinsing shower is almost always available, but check first if you are in a very rural area).
2. You must bathe without any clothes or suits – the onsen are an entirely bare affair. Towels can be worn for modesty up until entering the water, where they can be placed on the side or atop your head.
3. You must check if the baths are separated by gender, and bathe according to your gender.
4. Your head and hair must never enter the water. (It’s also not good for your facial and scalp skin, so no reason to mess with that!)
5. Tattoos are almost always strictly prohibited, due to the nature of their association with gang activity in Japanese culture. There are a few places now, especially in the cities, where certain bandages are allowed to cover tattoos, so be sure to check and bandage accordingly if this applies to you.