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Onsen Etiquette – the Joy of Japanese Hot Springs

By Marie-Antoinette Issa.

Sushi. Sake. Spas! While hot springs may not be the first thing that well, spring, to mind for those planning a trip to Japan, there’s so much more to the land of the rising sun than simply sushi!

In fact, for centuries, the Japanese have cherished the therapeutic benefits and communal experience of soaking in hot springs, known as onsen. These natural geothermal wonders dot the landscape of the country (more than 27,000 natural hot spring sources, to be specific), including the iconic onsens of Kusatsu, Giro and Miyajima in the Hiroshima Prefecture. 

Onsen Etiquette – the Joy of Japanese Hot Springs
All offer relaxation, rejuvenation and the profound opportunity to really connect with nature. While soaking in an onsen can be a deeply rewarding experience, it's important to understand and respect onsen etiquette before submerging yourself in these sacred spaces. 

Respect the ritual:

Visiting an onsen is more than just taking a bath; it's a ritual deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and tradition. Before entering the hot spring, it's customary to cleanse your body thoroughly in the designated washing area.

This not only ensures personal hygiene but also demonstrates respect for the purity of the onsen waters. Take your time to wash and rinse yourself completely before stepping into the communal bath.

Make modesty your mantra: 

In Japanese culture, modesty is highly valued, especially in communal settings like onsen. While it may feel unfamiliar to Western visitors, it's essential to embrace the practice of bathing naked in the presence of others.
Onsen Etiquette – the Joy of Japanese Hot Springs
Photo credit: Live Japan.

Remember that everyone in the onsen is there for the same purpose – to relax and unwind – so there's no need to feel self-conscious. Embrace the liberating experience of soaking in the soothing waters without the encumbrance of clothing.

Sit in silence:

Onsen are sanctuaries of serenity, where the sound of flowing water and rustling leaves creates a peaceful atmosphere. To maintain this sense of harmony, it's customary to observe silence while soaking in the hot spring.

Refrain from loud conversations, excessive splashing, or any other behaviour that may disturb the tranquillity of the onsen. Instead, allow yourself to be fully present in the moment, listening to the soothing sounds of nature and feeling the tension melt away.

Manners matter:

Courtesy and consideration for others are paramount in Japanese culture and the same applies to onsen etiquette. Be mindful of personal space and avoid crowding or encroaching on others' privacy. If the onsen becomes crowded, wait patiently for a space to open up rather than squeezing in uncomfortably close to others.

Additionally, refrain from using mobile phones or other electronic devices in the onsen area, as they can disrupt the peaceful ambience and disturb other bathers.

It’s time to talk towels: 

In most onsen, it's customary to bring a small towel with you into the bathing area. However, it's important to note that this towel should not be submerged in the hot spring water. 

Instead, use it to cover yourself modestly as you move between the washing area and the bath. Once you're in the hot spring, place the towel on your head or the edge of the bath, keeping it dry and clean. After soaking, use the towel to pat yourself dry before returning to the changing area.

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