Entering an onsen means to remove everything, literally.
Onsen, the traditional Japanese hot springs, are not just a place to relax by immersing yourself in the hot thermal waters, but they are a place where you enter totally naked, stripping off your clothes, make-up, prejudices and anxieties about your body.
I still remember my first time in an onsen: in Nikko, in 2015, the owner of the Guest House offers every evening to accompany guests to a small local onsen surrounded by nature, just over € 5 and three hours of time.
All I know is that you enter naked, which makes me a little panicked. But well, soaking in an onsen is one of the things that are always mentioned among the experiences to do in Japan, I don’t want to missing it.
And so, after about twenty minutes we arrive at the Nikko Ogurayama Onsen Yurin and we are divided into male and female. The other guests in the Guesthouse are a Spanish girl and two German girls, all of whom have already tried the onsen several times and tell me to just relax and do what they do. They approach the wicker baskets and immediately begin to undress, putting their personal effects and folded clothes in the basket. “Don’t worry, nobody here steals anything!” and walk naked towards the baths area with only one small towel in hand or on the shoulder. I hurry too, still a little embarrassed covering my body with the small towel.
Once inside, however, I have to leave my light armor to wash thoroughly in the dedicated station, trying to focus only on myself, not looking around and hoping that no one will notice me….. but each station has a mirror and no matter how much I try, I can see other naked women who are lathering their hair and body with absolute normality. I begin to calm down and as I proceed to soap myself, I relax, I become aware of the gestures that I usually do automatically in the shower and I feel light.
I see that the other girls are already immersed in the hot tub, the Spanish girl with the towel folded over her head. She suggests me to wet it with cold water, in order to prevent dizziness if the water is too hot for me. So I had a moment of terror entering in the bath, standing in front of everyone, completely naked and with my arms raised to hold the towel on my head to prevent it from falling into the water. I felt so exposed and vulnerable and I am very ashamed, but no one seems to pay any attention to me and once I soak up to my shoulders in the hot water, every effort, every worry, every thought, goes away. It’s just me and a fantastic feeling of peace.
Shortly after, only we foreigners remain in the bath and we start chatting, deciding to move to the rotenburo, the outdoor pool, overlooking the woods and where, despite the darkness of the night, we will also see a wild deer quite close.
And so I understood why the onsen is one of the best experiences you will have in your life.
Different types of onsen
Onsen are basically hot springs. As Japan is a volcanic island, mineral-rich hot springs can be found all over Japan. The culture of onsen, soaking into the warm waters to cleanse the body and mind has ancient origins like it was for example in the Roman Era with Roman baths.
The gesture of washing first and then plunging into hot water together with other people is common in Japan, especially in the cities, and for this reason, there are also many sento, public baths, but here the water does not come from a hot spring, but is artificially heated.
The onsen can be of two types: indoors called uchiyu, or outdoors, the rotenburo. They are generally divided by gender, but some konyoku, mixed baths, still survive in some rural areas of Japan.
Bath in an onsen
Soaking in an onsen is one of the must-do experiences on a trip to Japan. Treat yourself to this moment of absolute relaxation, forgetting tiredness, stress, worries, frenzy, the impositions of modern life. To maintain this sense of peace, however, it is important to carefully respect the good manners and rules of the onsen, so as not to disturb or annoy others.
The onsen are generally divided by gender: the red curtains indicate the side dedicated to women, the blue curtains the one dedicated to men. First of all, after passing the curtains, take off your shoes and place them on the shelf, after which you proceed to the baskets (or lockers) and undress completely, taking care to put away your clothes in a tidy way. Then head towards the baths area bringing with you the small towel that can be used to cover yourself while walking, as a sponge to wash your body, to put on your head to repair your hair or to lower your body temperature and also to dry yourself before returning to the locker room.
Once inside the bath area, you go to the stations with showers and stools and wash yourself properly. Usually soapl, shampoo and conditioner are available, but it is also possible to bring your own.
After rinse thoroughly from any soap residue, you are ready to immerse yourself in the onsen. Since the water temperature is generally around 40°C, I recommend entering slowly or getting wet first using the bucket by the pool. Be careful not to let the towel touch the water: you can place it nearby or hold it on your head, perhaps soaked in cold water to lower your body temperature.
In the onsen you can stay totally immersed up to your neck, but also sitting on the edge or half-length, the important thing is to pay attention not to annoy others and speak in a low voice if you are with friends.
Be careful not to stay for too long, learn to listen to your body and in case sit for a while out of the water (usually there are benches) or bathe in cold water. Once you are done, dry yourself with the towel before you leave the bath area, so you don’t drip all over the locker room.
In the changing rooms, you will also find a water dispenser and stations with brushes, hairdryers and sometimes moisturizers. Remember to check that you have not forgotten anything and if you have rented towels, leaving them in the baskets dedicated.
Onsen & Tattoo
In Japanese culture, tattoos are not well seen and there are many places where they are asked to cover them or even access is forbidden to those who have them. In almost all the onsen tattoos are forbidden, but it is generally possible to enter by covering them with special bands, hygienic and resistant to hot water, which create a sort of film on the skin that hides the tattoo and conforms to the complexion, being precisely available in various shades. These patches can be purchased for example from Don Quichotte, a megastore present in various parts of the city or ordered on Amazon.
If you have large tattoos that cannot be covered with plasters, don’t despair! You can still try the experience of Japanese onsen even if they are tattooed. You can search for a private onsen or search for a tattoo-friendly onsen by searching on the Tattoo-Friendly website or Tatto-spot website (in Japanese only).
Onsen & Period
Same as when you are not feeling good, when you have period, it would be better to avoid soaking in the onsen. The high temperature of the water increases blood pressure, with the result that you can feel weaker, possibly risking fainting. However, if you are feeling healthy, you can also go to onsen during your period. Obviously, the problem is hygiene and safety, both towards others and towards ourselves! The only solution to immerse yourself in the onsen despite your period is to use the menstrual cup. Not only because it is not visible, unlike the classic tampon – very unhygienic since the dangling cord would come into contact with the water of the thermal bath – but also because it works as a plug that protects the cervix from the entry of thermal minerals and at the same time it ensures that there are no spills that go to dirty the water.
Where Onsen are?
Since Japan is a volcanic island, there are many hot springs on the Japanese land and it is not difficult to find an onsen where to soak. You can find onsen in ryokans and thermal destinations, the so-called “onsen towns” but you can also find onsen in Tokyo (I have to finish trying them and then I’ll post on my Instagram account that I will link to here too), even if they are plus a kind of spas often with restaurant, massage and treatment room.
There are also many onsen in the mountainous areas, near the main hiking trails, and it also happens to find natural onsen near rivers and springs, but these are difficult to access or not very well promoted to foreign tourists.
Japanese ryokans: relaxation, onsen and great food
To fully experience the onsen experience, I recommend that you include in your itinerary a stop in an onsen town, usually surrounded by beautiful nature, where you can do “onsen hopping” and walk in yukata in the streets, trying various onsen with different properties and temperatures.
Best Onsen in Japan
There are so many onsen towns and spas in Japan, and ranking is not easy at all. I tried to make a list of the 10 best onsen towns in Japan, based on my experience and the most famous locations.
Gunma prefecture is full of beautiful onsen town surrounded by mountain landscapes, but the most particular is certainly Kusatsu Onsen. Located at an altitude of 1,200 meters, Kusatsu is one of the three onsen with the highest temperature in all of Japan. The thermal waters of Kusatsu gush out at a temperature above 75°C, sometimes reaching 95°C and before being able to soak in, is obviously necessary to lower the temperature and in the center of the town you can admire the Yubatake, a system of pipes in wood from which the vapors of the thermal water rise, which is thus naturally cooled without affecting its properties.
Kusatsu Onsen, the magic of Yubatake
Beppu & Yufuin
Beppu is a city entirely devoted to onsen tourism, full of onsen, restaurants and places of leisure and perdition. Ever since Aburaya Kumahachi – whose statue stands in front of Beppu Station – realized the potential of geothermal energy underground, the city developed as a kind of pleasure destination for Japanese salarymen. The Kannawa district is particularly scenic, with the heat fumes coming out of the streets and manholes, the smell of sulfur that fills the air and the humid heat of the vapors. Beppu’s hells are natural onsen where the water reaches very high temperatures and each hell has its own different characteristics due to the environment in which they are located. The Beppu hells are obviously not suitable for swimming, but in the city there are many other simples and spartan structures with thermal water from different properties. But if you are looking for onsen in the most classic sense of the term, the pretty town of Yufuin nestled in the mountains less than an hour by bus is the place for you.
Yudanaka & Shibu Onsen
In the Japanese Alps of Nagano prefecture, the two locations of Yudanaka and Shibu Onsen are among the most beautiful onsen in Japan. Breathtaking landscapes in winter, lush green in summer and an explosion of colors of nature in spring and autumn. In Shibu Onsen you go to do “onsen hopping”: by staying here, you have free access to the 9 public onsen of the town with over 400 years of history, while Yudanaka is the location where the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park is located, with the free-range monkeys bathing in the hot onsen.
Gero Onsen is also a town that develops along the course of a stream, with weeping willows on the sides and several ryokans and establishments. The atmosphere here is certainly more urban, but it is just as pleasant to walk in Yukata through its streets. Furthermore, Gero Onsen is located a short distance from Takayama and the Kiso Valley, and is, therefore, a stop that can be easily inserted into a tourist itinerary in Japan. I stopped in Gero Onsen while visiting the Kiso Valley and unfortunately I didn’t have much time to see it even during the day because I preferred to visit the Gero Onsen Gassho Village, an open-air museum where you can visit traditional houses of the Alps Japanese, the Gassho Zukuri.
This hot spring resort on the west coast of Japan was voted “Best Onsen Resort” by Lonely Planet and in the top 7 onsen hopping spots, tattoos are accepted! Kinosaki is a small town with traditional architecture crossed by a quiet river. I have never been to this location, but it seems to be very popular with the Japanese.
I have been in the caldera of Mount Aso only once for work and unfortunately, I have not had the opportunity to visit the famous resort of Kurokawa Onsen, stopping instead in another nearby but less famous location. In Kurokawa Onsen wooden buildings alternate with lush greenery and there are many very large rotemburo surrounded by nature. It is also possible to try a konyoku, an outdoor pool that is not separated by gender.
The most famous onsen in Hokkaido is absolutely Noboribetsu with its “Hell Valley”, from which boiling waters flow, descending downstream, into natural pools and different types of onsen with different concentrations of minerals and metals. The sulfurous waters of Noboribetsu are also distinguished by their milky color, which seems to have a toning effect on the skin.
In Dogo Onsen, in Shikoku, there is the oldest onsen in Japan, with over 3,000 years of history! The large castle-shaped public bath inspired the Ghibli studio’s masterpiece “Spirited Away“, which is set in a Japanese onsen. This town is very famous and has always been frequented by the imperial family and other important Japanese personalities.
If we look at the various rankings of the best onsen in Japan, Ginzan Onsen does not appear in the top positions, but personally, is at the top of my list of places I want to visit soon! Founded where there was a silver mine in the past, is a town with Taisho-style buildings lining the river, spanned by a series of stone bridges. Being nestled in the mountains of Yamagata prefecture, the winters are long and with heavy snowfall and walking in a yukata between a hot bath in an onsen and another, surrounded by snow, is one of the most beautiful experiences ever… hoping to be able to visit it next winter!
Probably the place that tourists most easily associate with the word onsen is Hakone, easily reachable from Tokyo and doable even in the day. If it’s your first trip to Japan or you’re planning a classic itinerary, Hakone onsen are the perfect solution to optimize your time and discover a hot spot that is also loved by the Japanese. If you are lucky then you will also be able to see Mount Fuji, but even if not, Hakone is worth a visit because in addition to the onsen it offers several attractions, such as the Hakone Shrine and its Giant Torii Gate or the Owakudani Valley and its black eggs.
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