Beyond the poetry (see The Heart of an Onsen: Part 1), there are a few essential rules for how to behave properly in an onsen, better known as yarikata – the way something is done. So, throw your earthly possessions in a basket in the dressing room, lock up your valuables in a lockbox (jewelry & watches are not recommended in the hot springs), summon your courage along with a small onsen towel, and let’s bathe!
The Naked Truth
Many foreigners who visit Japan feel uneasy about public nudity at onsens. Back home, bathing is done in private and away from the leering eyes of others. For most people, that discomfort lasts for just a few minutes once they realize that everyone else is naked too! Japan is an egalitarian society, and that is epitomized at an onsen. While bathing, it no longer matters what position one holds at a company, what car one drives or in which neighborhood one lives. Everyone is truly, nakedly, equal. That said, don’t be surprised if you get a few stares at your nether regions. After all, in Japan it’s the foreigners who are exotic! If that doesn’t work, just remember that Japan actually has a festival that honors the “slippery serpent” - not quite the image most people have of Japan, right?
The Onsen Towel
The only object that is permitted past the dressing room is the small, conspicuous, barely-there white towel. The towel is used both as a wash cloth and to (somewhat) cover your nakedness while walking between baths. While in the hot springs, it is considered impure to dip towels in the water, which is why you should either place the towel at the edge of the bath, or fold in a square and rest it on top of your head.
Wash Before You Bathe
It is essential to completely wash your body before going into a hot spring pool since hot springs are common spaces in Japan. More so than in nearly any other country, Japanese people show respect to others in common spaces such as subways, parks, shops and of course, at the onsen. While we’re at it: Don’t talk loudly while bathing, it’s also considered rude.
Next to the shower you'll see a little chair and a bucket. Sit in the chair and soak your onsen towel in the bucket. Almost always there are body soaps & shampoos provided, and most Japanese people prefer to lather up their onsen towels to scrub every centimeter of their bodies. I have seen people spend over a half hour just scrubbing themselves, to the point where their skin turns red, before they ever enter the baths. Going to a hot springs is probably the most accessible form of a Japanese purification ritual that foreigners can witness.
You can lounge around the bathing area and enter the baths as many times as you like. The real old-timers stay in for at least an hour. Once you’ve had enough, you can either rinse off at the washing stations or head straight back to the dressing room. One last rule: Don’t enter the dressing room dripping wet. Use the onsen towel to dry yourself a little, then enter the dressing room and grab your full-length towel from your basket, or simply air-dry. At bigger onsens you can find various beauty products invitingly set in the dressing room: Hilauronic acid, collagen, placenta, royal jelly and other well-branded cosmetic giveaways always make me happy to spend extra time taking good care of myself. If you want to finish off your bath in a truly Japanese way, head for the vending machines and grab yourself a small bottle of milk. There is the belief that milk rejuvenates the body after bathing.
In some onsens you can still find signs at the entrance informing visitors that tattoos are not allowed. It is an anachronistic custom of a bygone era when tattoos were attributed to yakuzas (mafia), the dominant criminal group of post-war Japan. If you are the bearer of tattoos, small ones can be covered up with your onsen towel, and larger ones, well…either hope the staff doesn’t say anything, or avoid the cleaning ladies at all cost – your hot springs may depend on it. If you are asked to leave, there is really no point in arguing. Obviously, as a foreigner, you could never be a yakuza; but after all, this is still Japan, where yarikata is bigger than any of us.
At least you are now aware of the essential yarikata of taking an onsen. But there is one rule we neglected to tell you so far: leaving Japan without visiting at least one onsen is, well, criminal!
Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
Anastasia at HNT
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.