There are few countries with as developed an onsen, hot spring, and public bathing culture as Japan. According to their statistics, every prefecture if not every city has at least one hot spring bath, and many are listed as one of the top attractions within a given region. Suffice to say, if you really want to get the “full” Japanese experience, a soak in an onsen is not to be missed.
At the same time, however, many tourists find the prospect of public bathing uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Although there are some exceptions that permit bathing suits, the majority of onsen (including the best ones) are enjoyed naked. Some are even mixed gender. The Japanese view the naked human body differently than most Western cultures. Even when the bathing areas are segregated, do not be surprised to see mothers bring their young sons into the bath with them.
This isn’t to say that the Japanese aren’t modest though. Rather, their attention is focused elsewhere. You will rarely find anyone looking directly at each other’s bodies. If a bather comes alone, he or she will most likely be absorbed in themselves or admiring the view about them. This is especially true in rotemburo, outdoor baths, which is the ultimate onsen bathing experience. If they come with friends, they will be more engaged in conversation with each other and will probably ignore you completely. Even in mixed bathing situations, the men tend to stay to one side of the bath and the women to the other (families appear to be the exception to this implicit rule, but again they will keep to themselves). Despite being public, there is a very private feeling to 0nsen bathing that everyone shares, thus eliminating the potential awkwardness.
The second most common obstacle for many visitors to Japan that cause them to forego the experience of an onsen is the apparent etiquette or procedure behind bathing in Japan. Some establishments are kind enough to outline the rules clearly in English (and Japanese), but other locations assume you already know. This may be intimidating, but “onsen manners” are actually quite east to understand and follow.
So here it is, how to enjoy onsen and public baths without getting yelled at:
As I said before, onsen and public baths are enjoyed naked. Swimming suits are not allowed in most locations. Please wait to change out of your clothes until you’re inside the changing room. There are usually baskets and lockers to store your belongings and valuables. Unfortunately, no tattoo, no matter how small, is allowed inside an onsen or public bathhouse. (Please note that it is possible to get away with small tattoos at a ryokan). No photography is permitted inside the bath area.
It’s customary to bring a personal towel (oftentimes provided to you) into the bathing area which you may use to cover up as you move around. Before entering, wash your body thoroughly with soap and shampoo. Don’t stand, sit on the stool while washing. NOTE: You may notice that not everyone follows this rule. In the past, it was common practice to simply rinse yourself, then soak in the bath, and then wash thoroughly with soap and shampoo before soaking a second time. Today, this is only practiced by the older generations.
After washing, rinse your body several times using the water from the bath, outside of the bath. You will find wooden buckets lying on the rim of the bath for this sole purpose. This will help your body acclimate to the temperature as well. Put the bucket back where you found it when finished.
Enter the bath to soak as quietly as possible. Do not bring the towel into the water once you step inside the bath. If you have long hair, make sure to put it up so the ends don’t get into the water.
Be careful not to overheat. There are usually cold baths to cool off between soaks, use the water to pour onto your body. Don’t step into them.
When you are finished, it’s common at public baths to shower again after soaking, but at onsen it isn’t, as it’s believed to reduce the mineral effects of the waters.
Lastly, some advice: if the idea of bathing in public is still uncomfortable to you but you do want to try a hot spring, consider staying at a ryokan that offers their own private onsen baths. You can also try to go during non-peak hours, which at a ryokan would be (usually) during the late morning, afternoon, and early evening (before dinner). At a public onsen bathhouse, non-peak hours are usually morning and early evening. I have often had the luxury of having the entire bathing area to myself by going during these times.