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A beginner’s guide to onsen in Japan

11 Comments
By Cassandra Lord

One of the best parts of Japan’s winter traditions is going to an onsen (hot spring). Submerging yourself in hot water warms your cold bones like nothing else, leaving you relaxed and ready for bed when you step out of the changing rooms.

Going to an onsen for the first time isn’t easy for everyone, though. Not only do you need to get naked in front of strangers (or worse, your own family), but the many customs and rules can be scary for first-timers.

Read on to learn more about what to expect on your first dip in the onsen.

A brief history of onsen

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For a long time, onsen were mainly used for treating illness and injury, particularly for those of higher status. Photo: iStock/ Alexandra Scotcher

Japan is incredibly mountainous; of those many mountains, 440 are volcanoes. So, it makes sense that there are so many hot springs. Given that the winters can be particularly harsh in many parts of Japan, the hot springs would have also been a welcome escape from the cold.

Bathing in onsen goes back thousands of years, with some of the earliest written records being in the Man’yoshu, a collection of traditional Japanese poems compiled around AD 759. Some of the oldest onsens are Dogo OnsenNishiyama Onsen Keiunkan and Arima Onsen.

It wasn’t until late in the Edo period (1603–1867) that common people began to visit onsen for recreational purposes.

Onsen etiquette

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Know before you go. Photo: iStock/ alphabetMN

Click here to read more.

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11 Comments
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I think I'd have the confidence to go to an onsen by myself. Only ever been to one (on Iojima, Nagasaki) since coming to Japan, and that was with someone. It was a great experience though, with a fantastic open-air view of the bay and, at that time, the setting sun, followed by a delicious chirashizushi dinner.

Would it be safe to assume that breaking wind in there should be on that etiquette list?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't think I'd have the confidence, rather.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I’ve gone many times but still am not sure about the stools and basins. Are you supposed to use freshly washed ones or do you simply use ones that’ve already been used without being washed? After you’ve used them, do you just leave them at the washing spot where you found them, do you rinse/wash them for the next person, or do you put them somewhere indicating they’ve been used and need cleaning?

It seems really unhygienic to sit that kind of stool that has just been sat on by a naked stranger.

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Renovated my bath tub last month.

Can fill it with tangerines or whatever whenever I want, and don't have to share stools.

-6 ( +0 / -6 )

Haha. Everyone just puts the bucket (basin) on top of the stool and walks off. There's no cleaning. I usually give it a few squirts of soap and a rinse before sitting down.

I’ve gone many times but still am not sure about the stools and basins. Are you supposed to use freshly washed ones or do you simply use ones that’ve already been used without being washed? After you’ve used them, do you just leave them at the washing spot where you found them, do you rinse/wash them for the next person, or do you put them somewhere indicating they’ve been used and need cleaning?

It seems really unhygienic to sit that kind of stool that has just been sat on by a naked stranger.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Stool has no place in an onsen!

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

I stayed at a ryokan onsen in Niigata and only went in the onsen once, late at night so I was the only on there when I went in, although three others came while i was soaking.

It is a little strange for someone from Australia, but it was liberating and refreshing. It is always hard when you do not speak the local language, and without the translator on my phone I could not communicate other than hand gestures, smiles and bows. It is an experience i would recommend. The point of visiting different cultures is to experience the different way of life and it was a good experience. I would have been nervous if it had been mixed gender bathing, but it would still have been liberating.

Thoroughly enjoyed my time in Japan, learned a few words and phrases and would love to visit again. So much beauty to see, great architecture and polite people in very clean cities.

If you get the chance to visit an onsen, do it. keep the practice alive.

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My GF drags me to ones all over, sometimes I like them, I like it when outside in the cold air, Problem is you don't want to get out. I guess the picture means no more lap swimming for me.

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I think they're great when there's almost nobody else there, but I'm not keen on crowded ones. The best are the outdoor rockpool types out under the snow. Sooooo invigorating after a day of skiing.

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There's nothing like it. My body is rejuvenated into a new body sleeve...every time!

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