Everything You Must Know for the Ultimate Japanese Onsen Experience

Visiting a Japanese bath house is a must for anyone traveling to Japan for the first time. There are a series of traditional, authentic Japanese bath houses throughout the country that can offer up a variation of unforgettable experiences and relaxation packages.

Bathhouses in Japan are regarded as a good place to get some rest and relaxation. There are more modern resorts that incorporate spa treatment packages while others are centuries-old and more traditional which has been passed on from generations to generations in a single family.

Anytime there is a forecast of rainy or cold weather, a short visit to the Japanese bath house is a must - drift into that long awaited vacation and rest. Prime onsen destinations can be a bit pricey, but the deliciously hot water will surely give the body some long-awaited relaxation and be worth every Yen spent.

Tips and tricks for visiting Japanese Onsen

Rules inside Japanese Bath Houses

For those who have never traveled or visited a Japanese bath house before, there are some important rules to remember to keep order inside the resort. The first thing is that upon entry, always remove your shoes. There are special lockers intended for storage of luggage on the entrance of almost all onsens. Most onsens expect their visitors to use traditional wooden clogs or slippers while inside the facilities.

The second thing to remember is that almost all onsens have separate baths for women and men. So if anyone is planning a romantic holiday with their significant other, going to an onsen will definitely be a stretch. As a small tip, to avoid very embarrassing scenarios, it might be helpful to remember that changing rooms or stations with red curtains are for women and blue curtains are for men.

The third thing to remember is to always clean yourself thoroughly before entering public baths or pools. There are showers before entering baths and it is expected that a person thoroughly washes before entering. There are traditional models of wooden tubs and chairs beside the shower stations for a more comfortable wash. Almost all onsens provide shampoos, conditioners, and soaps so bringing one might not be necessary, just don’t forget to keep them in order before you leave!

The last tip that almost all onsen pros give is to never let the towel touch the bath. It may be considered by some locals as disrespectful and dirty. On top of that, these towels are also not allowed to be left about the baths like the shower stations or by the side of the pools. This is why it is most recommendable to place towels on top of one’s head. As funny as it may sound, the cool towel on one’s head can give a refreshing feel for the face and body when the water gets too hot. So, make sure you practice towel balancing acts before your trip!

Although there are no strict rules about it, women who are on their period are recommended to postpone travels or visits to the onsen. Onsen goers are very particular about contaminating the water which is why wearing bathing suits or even putting towels into the bath water is strongly frowned upon. Tampons can be life-savers, but seeing a string in between someone’s legs when entering a nude only public pool can be a bit disturbing for many.

Recommendable attitude and attire inside the Onsen in Japan

Although prime onsen resorts will surely welcome tourists and foreign guests, there’s a handful that offers up some restrictions. There are some traditionally modeled hot spring resorts, especially small family-run ones inside tiny towns, that do not accept foreigners particularly those with tattoos. Some owners think that gigantic tattoos can scare away other customers while others are just exasperated with the overly-excited behaviors of visitors. Quite understandably, some locals do want to stay away from overly excited Gaijins that takes pictures of everything, even the wooden signs on the walls.

For years this interesting ban on foreigners have provided racism tensions, however, it is for the best interest of the locals to keep their bath houses private. The rules are now more relaxed but it would be helpful to do a little research on the area to get informative reviews.

The magical thing about a Japanese onsen, and what makes it popular as it is, is that almost all onsens are nude only. This means that people enter and exit the pool stark naked. This is also the reason why almost all onsens separate baths for men and women. There are some exceptions where bath house owners allow an individual to wear a swimsuit. There are also some unisex onsens that provide gowns for coverage. But finding one in the country can be a bit hard and almost all traditionally modeled hot springs are nude only.

If you are a bit shy about showing off your body, it's perfectly fine to cover up with the provided hand towel before entering the bath. But make sure to not let the towel touch the water. As recommended by most locals, it would be more attention grabbing to cover up than to act naturally with wearing nothing.

Furthermore, the main purpose of the Japanese onsen is to help their customers relax. Keep in mind to not play in the water as it will definitely create unnecessary waves in the pool. Also, there are other parts of the resort intended for more playful activities but it is still important to keep a quiet and relaxed atmosphere.

Famous Japanese Hot Springs

Dogo Onsen

One of the oldest onsens in Japan is the Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama City. The entire wooden structure dates back from the Meiji period and it is a three-storied gigantic mansion whose timeless atmosphere can bring about the nostalgia of historical Japan. This means a homey, yet a historical piece of architecture in the middle of the concrete jungle! This place is worth a visit because it will surely give any of its guests the feel of authentic, cultural and historical Japanese onsens.

This particular destination is one of the prime hot springs in all of Japan. It has been awarded 3 Michelin Stars and was even designated as an ‘Important Cultural Property’ because of its important role through history.

Its history dates back to almost 3,000 years where the oldest historical books in Japan has mentioned it countless of times. There are even stories and accounts that tell of Royalty bathing in its famous hot springs. This particular Japanese hot spring is also made its name in pop culture as the famous director Hayao Miyazaki has made a tribute to the Dogo Onsen in the award-winning film “Spirited Away”.

Tenzan Onsen

For anyone trying to have that ultimate relaxation getaway, the Tenzan onsen in Kanagawa Japan is a definite must-try. Located more than 40 kilometers from Tokyo, anyone can go to Kanagawa in just roughly 44 minutes from Tokyo Station. Just imagine having that quiet dip on a rainy afternoon while viewing the wonderful greens of the Mountains of Hakone – that is the dream!

This particular bath house is popular for both locals and tourists because it is a very large multiple-bath hot spring complex that could cater to a significant number of people without taking away that relaxed, tranquil experience. Just like other traditional onsens, it has been designed in traditional Japanese display style which comprises of old fashioned wooden slide doors, tatami fitted rooms and narrow networks of passages.  Inside the complex are courtyards, restaurants and a gift shop, perfect for that whole weekend stress-free getaway.

There are multiple outdoor baths, or rotomburos, in the entire facility. There are large pools which can be painfully but, surprisingly comfortable hot. There are pools also which are spacious and multi-levelled. There is also a pool that goes into a cave, for that natural hot spring feel. Then there are two specialty pools in the facility: one which has been built out of cedar and the other with milk-coloured water from special aromatic ingredients. Both have been claimed to have special healing abilities for a sore body.

Arima Onsen

The Arima Onsen is probably one of the most reviewed bath houses in Japan because of its impressively high price of almost 30,000 Japanese Yen per night! Don’t worry because every Yen spent is definitely worth the price because of their service that treats every guest like they are royalty.

The waters of the Arima onsen dates back to the 7th century and has been mentioned in the historical chronicles of Nihonshoki. Through the centuries, their history boasts of visits from warriors, princesses, emperors and much more.

This particular hot spring is located in Kobe, roughly about seven hours from Tokyo, but every hour spent in transit will surely be relieved by the wonderful waters of the Arima onsen. What makes it special is that Arima Onsen is not just one bath house as the entire district is made up of multiple onsens, resorts, and hotels that offer a series of deals and packages.

What makes this particular onsen more special is that they offer up tours around the area for an additional cost. Some examples of tourist destinations in the town include Tenjin Gensen, which is a hot spring with high concentrations of iron. Other destinations include temples, parks and much more. Travel the town to get an unforgettable cultural experience.

Takeo Onsen

Also one of the most historical onsens in Japan is the Takeo-onsen which has been claimed to be roughly more than a thousand year old! Japan Guide reports that its design styles are strictly traditional Japanese which gives its guests a feel of living in a Japanese castle.

Located in the Saga prefecture, this particular place is a famous onsen destination because of their special hot spring water. According to reports, its silky smooth water has high concentrations of sodium bicarbonate which make it pretty delicious on the body and skin.

The design style of the Takeo-onsen is so elaborate that there is a Roman-tiled pool inside the complex. Visitors are welcomed by a large traditional gate, boasting of old-fashioned architecture giving a feel of entering historical Japan. Once inside, the guests will be wowed by a large courtyard leading to rooms and houses with maze-like, narrow corridors.

Most Recommended Japanese Onsen Resorts outside Japan

It will be difficult to find Japanese-styled bathhouses outside of Japan which would be as authentic as it can possibly get. However, there are some resorts that try their best to mimic and model the authenticity of traditional hot springs in Japan.

Similar kinds of public baths can be found in other Asian countries just like in South Korea and China. For instance, just in Shanghai alone there are a number of hot springs that are quite similar to Japanese onsens. Locals and tourists alike can take their time to enjoy and relax in the hot waters in these baths. In Singapore, there is a very popular spa that offers up packages that include an onsen experience. There are special areas for massages and spa treatments and there is also an area for the communal bath.

In the US, a very popular Japanese spa and onsen resort is the Kabuki Springs and Spa. Although it is more westernized, there is still some authentic onsen experience to their bathing and relaxation packages. There are other hot springs in the area as well, but not as original as those found in Japan.

Japanese onsens are not just housing with baths. Many of them are comprised of different parts and areas that are intended also for rest and relaxation. This means that a series of onsen resorts offer up packages for a night's stay and even areas with tatami flooring that will help anyone immediately drift into a sleepy wonderland.