Are you planning a trip to Japan and considering visiting an onsen? Look no further, as this post contains everything you need to know as a traveler about enjoying a hot spring in Japan. As someone who has personally visited a ryokan with a private onsen and fully enjoyed it, I can attest to the amazing experience that awaits you.
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Table of Contents
What are Onsens?
In Japan, onsens are hot springs and the bathing facilities and traditional inns around them. These hot springs are popular for their health benefits and have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries. There are approximately 25,000 hot spring sources throughout Japan, and approximately 3,000 onsen establishments use naturally hot water from these geothermally heated springs.
Onsen may be either outdoor baths or indoor baths, each with its own strong points and benefits. Traditionally, onsens were located outdoors, although many inns have now built indoor bathing facilities as well. Nowadays, as most households have their own baths, the number of traditional public baths has decreased, but the popularity of sightseeing hot spring towns has increased.
Baths may be either publicly run by a municipality or privately, often connecting to a lodging establishment such as a hotel, ryokan, or minshuku. The presence of an onsen is often indicated on signs and maps by the symbol ♨, the kanji 湯 (yu, meaning “hot water”), or the simpler phonetic hiragana character ゆ (yu).
When onsen water contains distinctive minerals or chemicals, establishments often display what type of water it is, in part because the specific minerals found in the water have been thought to provide health benefits. They can contain sulfur, sodium chloride, hydrogen carbonate, or iron, each having different benefits for your health.
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The History of Onsens in Japan
The history of onsens in Japan dates back to the 6th century, as noted in old books of Japanese history. These hot springs were used for purifying rituals in the Shinto religion and for the enjoyment of the emperors. Eventually, the bathing culture in onsens spread throughout the country, becoming accessible to all citizens. Interestingly, it is said that people began to gather around onsens to hunt wild animals that came to drink the hot spring water to absorb minerals.
The Health Benefits of Onsens
Visiting a traditional onsen in Japan is not just a great way to relax but also a unique way to experience Japanese culture. Many onsens are steeped in history, with stories of samurai warriors soaking in the waters to heal their wounds after a battle. Nowadays, soaking in a hot spring is considered a therapeutic experience for people suffering from various ailments. In fact, there is scientific evidence that suggests that bathing in an onsen can have a number of health benefits.
- Increase Blood Circulation: Onsen water is rich in natural minerals, such as sodium bicarbonate and calcium, that get absorbed into our bodies as we bathe. These minerals help increase blood flow and the amount of oxygen in our blood.
- Reduce Stress and Sleep Better: The hot spring water can relieve tense muscles, and the natural surroundings of most Japanese hot springs can help clear your mind. Your body quickly cools after leaving the hot spring, which encourages your body to relax and puts you into a deeper sleep.
- Relieve Pain: A recent study in the Journal of Rheumatology studied the effects of hot springs on pain. The conclusion was that the intense heat of the bathing experience somewhat dulled our perception of pain. The onsen water also acts as buoyancy for aching joints. The combination of temperature, minerals, mental state, and ease of movement in the water helps relieve different kinds of pain.
- Treat Skin Problems: Onsen in Japan have different mineral qualities. Many onsens have been known to beautify the skin or have names like “Beautiful Skin” or “Princess Bath.” Some hot springs contain silica, which can smooth or soften dry and rough skin. Onsens containing sulfur have been recommended for people suffering from eczema and psoriasis.
- Reduce Stress: Soaking in hot springs is not only a relaxing experience but also a great way to improve your overall well-being. The warm water of the onsen can help reduce stress and tension in your body, which can lead to better sleep, improved digestion, and increased energy levels. Taking the time to indulge in a hot spring soak can have numerous benefits for your mind and body. It’s no wonder why onsens have become such an integral part of Japanese culture!
Tattoos and Onsens in Japan
As the tourism industry in Japan grows, more and more foreigners are visiting the country’s onsens. Some onsens that previously banned tattoos are now loosening their rules to allow guests with small tattoos to enter. However, they require guests to cover their tattoos with a patch or sticking plaster to be allowed in.
Best Onsen Areas in Japan
Japan is known for its numerous hot springs, or onsens, which can be found all over the country. Here are some of the best onsen areas you can choose from:
- Kusatsu Onsen: A popular onsen resort town in Gunma Prefecture, known for its high-quality, mineral-rich water.
- Hakone Onsen: Located in Kanagawa Prefecture, this onsen area offers stunning views of Mt. Fuji and is easily accessible from Tokyo.
- Beppu Onsen: Located in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu, Beppu is known for its many different types of hot springs, including mud baths and sand baths.
- Yufuin Onsen: A small onsen town in Oita Prefecture, known for its picturesque rural scenery and relaxing atmosphere.
- Kurokawa Onsen: A hidden gem in Kumamoto Prefecture, known for its traditional, rustic atmosphere and beautiful natural surroundings.
- Noboribetsu Onsen: Located in Hokkaido, this onsen area is known for its unique, sulfuric water and stunning, volcanic landscape.
- Kinosaki Onsen: Located in Hyogo Prefecture, this historic onsen town is known for its charming atmosphere and traditional architecture.
- Dogo Onsen: One of Japan’s oldest and most famous onsen, located in Ehime Prefecture on the island of Shikoku.
- Fuji Kawaguchiko Onsen: Located near Mt. Fuji, this onsen area offers stunning views of the iconic mountain and is a popular spot for outdoor activities.
- Ibusuki Onsen: Located in Kagoshima Prefecture, this onsen area is unique for its sand baths, which are said to have therapeutic benefits.
Other honorable mentions include Kusatsu Onsen, Nozawa Onsen, Atami Onsen, Yumoto Onsen, Niwa no Yu, and Ginzan Onsen. No matter where you go, experiencing an onsen in Japan is a must-do activity for any traveler seeking relaxation and rejuvenation.
How to get to enjoy Japan’s hot springs?
Some public onsens can be visited straight from the city, so if you’re really in a hurry and can only invest a few hours in enjoying this experience, this is a good starting point. Please note though that most public onsens in major cities are not actual hot springs, but pools with hot water. The natural onsens have mineral water that is heated by the volcanic activity of the area, while the unnatural ones have normal water heated by usual means like you would enjoy when showering at home.
One of the best ideas though is to visit a special area known for its hot springs. I have offered you a few examples above, and plan to write a few more blog posts about each of them. To get to these areas, I suggest you check out the JR Pass, as it’s most probably your easiest solution to travel between cities in Japan anyway. You can check out my detailed guide about using a train in Japan to see how you can find out if you need the JR Pass for your trip or not.
What to Pack for an Onsen Trip
If you’re planning to visit an onsen in Japan, it’s important to pack a few essential items to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable experience. First and foremost, bring a bathing suit, as some onsens require all visitors to wear one, and you might go to a different kind of spa where you will need one.
Additionally, pack a big towel to dry off after soaking, as well as waterproof patches if you have a tattoo that may not be allowed in some onsens. Don’t forget to bring your favorite cosmetics to use after soaking, as the minerals in the water can be harsh on the skin. Lastly, bring something to hold your hair up, like a hair tie or clip, to keep it out of the water and prevent any discomfort.
Choosing the Right Onsen for You
If you’re planning to visit an onsen in Japan, it’s important to choose the right one that suits your needs and preferences. For instance, if you have a tattoo, it’s best to look for a tattoo-friendly onsen or book a room with a private hot spring to avoid any issues.
On the other hand, if you’re not comfortable bathing naked in front of others, you can opt for a private onsen or a mixed-gender one where that requires the use of bathing suits. Additionally, it’s recommended to check the chemical composition of the onsen to ensure that you don’t have any health issues that could prevent you from enjoying the hot spring.
The Best Time to Visit an Onsen
Onsens can be enjoyed all year round, whether in the winter or in the summer. During winter, there is nothing more relaxing than soaking in a hot spring while the snow falls around you. The cold weather also makes the hot water even more inviting. In the summer, on the other hand, it is a great way to unwind after a day of exploring under the sun. Whatever the season, a trip to an onsen is a must-do experience in Japan.
Who should avoid onsens?
As much as we like to believe that hot springs are for everyone, nothing in this world is for everyone so let’s just embrace this. Of course, if you have various health issues that you know you should take care of, please talk to your doctor about this. They will be able to advise you better than any other blogger you will find online.
As a female, you should avoid onsens if you’re menstruating, or if you’re pregnant. While pregnant, you can discuss more with your doctor, but when I was pregnant they indeed recommended me not to use any hot springs.
Anyone else should avoid onsens if they have an issue with any of the minerals in the water, if they are unwell in any way (especially if having a fever), or if staying in extreme heat is problematic to them in any way (like it is the case in some heart conditions).
Tips when visiting hot springs
So, you’re ready to take a dip in a hot spring in Japan? Great choice! Onsens are a unique cultural experience that you won’t want to miss. To help you make the most of your onsen experience, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Make sure to wash thoroughly before entering the hot spring. Onsens are meant to be used to relax, not to wash yourself.
- Drink plenty of water and you might also need some fruit juice after, as you can feel drained after a hot, steaming soak.
- Always look straight ahead to not seem like you’re staring at other people. Being in a room full of naked people might feel weird at the beginning, but you’ll warm up to it rather soon (see what I did there?)
- Be mindful of others and keep noise to a minimum. Also, try to relax as well. This is what hot springs are meant for.
- Do not submerge your head in the hot spring. Your hair should never touch the water, and I wouldn’t like your nose and eyes in the water either.
- If you feel too hot or dizzy, exit the hot spring immediately. Being in such a hot environment can make some people feel a bit lightheaded. If you feel a bit strange, exit right away and take a cold shower to try to feel better.
- Do not drink alcohol before or during your time in the hot spring. This can be very dangerous as alcohol and heat do not make a nice combo for your brain, so you shouldn’t have any Pina Coladas in this type of pool.
- Follow any additional rules or etiquette specific to the hot spring you are visiting. This should go without saying but yes, some places might have specific rules, and you should be mindful of them.
The Dos and Don’ts of Onsen Etiquette
When visiting an onsen in Japan, it’s important to understand and follow the etiquette rules to ensure a comfortable and respectful experience for everyone. From bathing procedures to wearing appropriate attire, these guidelines help maintain the cleanliness and tranquility of the hot springs for all who visit. Let’s dive in and explore the do’s and don’ts of onsen etiquette.
- Wash Yourself Well: Before entering the onsen, make sure to clean yourself thoroughly. Don’t just take a quick shower, use the small towel you were given to scrub yourself really well.
- No Tattoos: Except for the cases when you know the onsen allows tattoos, or if you’re in a private onsen, do not use them if you have tattoos or cover them up with a patch.
- Keep Your Hair Out: Your hair should never touch the water. This is to keep it as clean as possible, so do not submerge your head in the water, no matter how cool it seems on TV.
- Be Completely Naked: I know, I know, it feels weird to be completely naked in what is essentially a big bathtub with strangers. If it makes you feel better, this is for hygiene reasons, and it happens in Europe as well in some spas.
- Use the Towel Wisely: The small towel provided should not touch the water either. So, where do you leave it, you ask? Well, you fold it nicely and put it on your head. Bonus tip: soak it in cold water to get a nice cold patch on your soon-to-be very hot skin.
- Avoid Open Wounds: If you have open wounds of any kind, do not enter the onsen. This is due to the risk of infection that you can transmit to other people, but also for your safety, as in the water there are potential things you might not want in your blood.
- Keep Quiet: Be mindful of other people and keep the noise level down. Everyone comes here to relax, not to hear all about the party you went to last night, so please allow them to enjoy themselves as well.
- No Splashing: Do not jump, dive, splash, or make loud noises in the onsen. This is not a pool where you can run around, pushing each other or a place for your kids to practice their sick jumps.
- Mind Your Showering: Be aware when showering as it’s a common area, try to not bother other people. Try not to splash people around you. Wouldn’t you feel disgusted if someone else would throw some foam from their body to yours?
- Shower Between Onsens: If you use more than one hot spring, it’s best to shower between them or after using the sauna. As a rule of thumb, before you enter any onsen, you have to wash yourself.
- Pat Yourself Dry: After exiting the hot spring, pat yourself dry before entering the changing area. It might feel weird to do so with the already wet and tiny towel you have been wearing on your head until now, but it’s better than going in the changing area with water dripping all over.
- Clean Up After Yourself: Clean up any benches or buckets you have used. You have just a tiny space for yourself here, so leave it clean for the people coming after you to ensure that everyone has a good experience.
- Use a Towel to Sit On: If you need to sit, put a towel on the benches you use. It would anyway feel weird to just sit with your bare skin on a bench where you have no idea who sat before you, am I right?
- No Alcohol: Do not drink alcohol in the onsen for health and safety reasons. Alcohol and heat are not a good combination for your body. Plus, any glass containers in the hot spring can be a safety issue if it gets broken.
- Avoid During Your Period: Unfortunately for all people with periods, you should not enter an onsen if you are on your period, even if you’re wearing a tampon or a menstrual cup. Not sure how good you’d feel to be in that heat during your period, so keep it in mind in case you’re as unlucky as I am (I routinely joke about having to buy a plane ticket for my period as well, as it always finds a way to come with us on all vacations!)
During my visit to Japan I had the pleasure of staying at a ryokan with a private onsen. The whole experience was amazing, from sleeping on a futon laid out on tatami mat floors to enjoying the delicious food with plenty of options to choose from.
The highlight of my stay was, of course, the onsen. Although it was separated into male and female areas, I found the experience incredibly relaxing after a long day of walking over 20,000 steps. The ryokan had both an indoor and outdoor onsen, each with its own charm.
However, the only downside was that without my husband, I felt a bit lonely and bored, so I didn’t stay in the onsen for too long. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend visiting a ryokan with an onsen for anyone traveling to Japan.
As we didn’t want to go to Hakone for this experience since we knew that’s the place where most tourists go, we decided to go to Gero, Gifu instead. This area is a bit further away from the main Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto “avenue”, so it’s mostly visited by locals, which is exactly what we wanted. We choose the Yukai Resort and loved it!
The food was amazing, the room was nice and they had two onsens, one inside, and one on the roof. The only downside was that it had a lot of stairs at the entrance and no elevator, so we had to carry our pretty heavy luggage up the stairs. Apart from this, we fully recommend the place, check it out below!
FAQ about onsens in Japan
What are onsens in Japan?
Onsens or hot springs are sources of water that are naturally hot and contain minerals. These springs are known for their relaxing and therapeutic benefits.
Can foreigners go to onsens in Japan?
Yes, of course, as long as they abide by the local rules and customs and follow the correct onsen etiquette.
Do you wear clothes in an onsen?
No, you are forbidden from entering the onsen while wearing anything. This is a way to keep the spring water clean of any impurities you can carry on your swimsuit.
Where are onsens in Japan?
You can find onsens in plenty of areas of the country, and there are usually entire towns where hot springs are the main focus.
Are onsens separated by gender?
Usually yes, onsens are mostly same-sex only. There are a few exceptions though where you can visit a free-for-all onsen, or you can book a private onsen that you will enjoy straight from your room.
Do you shower after visiting an onsen?
No, you shouldn’t shower really soon, as you’ll wash off all the minerals. But you should shower if switching hot springs or at least get a quick cold shower if you feel uncomfortable upon exiting the onsen.
Who should avoid onsen?
You should avoid onsens if you are menstruating or pregnant, suffer from various diseases that make you extremely sensitive to heat (or having a fever) or if you’re allergic to any of the minerals present in the hot spring’s water.
How long should you sit in an onsen?
If you feel alright, you can stay up to 10 minutes at a time in an onsen, and you can take cold feet baths in between onsens. Of course, if you feel dizzy, get out of the hot spring at any time.
Do onsens smell bad?
Some yes, especially the ones that contain sulfur. You will recognize them immediately by the smell of old eggs.
Onsens in Japan – The takeaway
Experiencing an onsen in Japan is truly an art form. The history, culture, and tradition behind it make it a unique and must-do activity for anyone visiting Japan. From the healing properties to the stunning natural surroundings, an onsen experience is one that will leave you feeling relaxed, rejuvenated, and in awe of the beauty that Japan has to offer.
So, be sure to add visiting an onsen to your Japan travel itinerary. It’s an experience that will not disappoint! And don’t forget to get your PDF with entry fees to various Japanese attractions. It will help you budget plan like no other!