Japan is a country that experiences all four seasons; summer, autumn, winter, and spring. It is known for its diverse climate, as the northern region of Japan sees a lot of cold temperatures and snow, while the south of Japan experiences more tropical-like weather. The center of Japan has more of a temperate climate, however, winters still do get cold in most parts of the country.
Just as much as it is known for its climate, Japan is also famous for being an archipelago, riddled with active volcanoes. Combine volcanoes with lake and pond groups within these scattered islands, and you get hot springs. Now - what could be more soothing to deal with frosty temperatures than to soak in a warm bath that uses fresh water from those springs? That’s where Japan’s famous facility and concept comes into play – the onsen.
What Is an Onsen?
“Onsen” – written in Japanese as “温泉” is the Japanese word for a bathing facility that uses water from hot springs. Onsens vary in type, size, location, and even water use. Because using an onsen is so deeply rooted in Japanese history, it is not considered just an external facility. It is very much integrated into their culture, and thus require a set of rules, as well as etiquette tips to follow.
Private Vs. Public Onsen – What’s the Difference?
As already mentioned, there are many kinds of the onsen. Some are found outdoors and made with stones and rocks, others are wooden and indoors, some use tiles – the varieties are endless. Some even come with extra massage options – or a glorious view of Mt. Fuji. At the same time, there are onsens that are built by the public, for the public (especially by municipalities), while there are onsens that are built by private establishments for both private and public use. In general, there are four options you can pick from when choosing which onsen you want to bathe in.
- There are specific rooms in hotels that offer the option of having an onsen (whether it’s open-air or in a room). To acquire this privilege, you will have to inquire if your desired hotel/ryokan (Japanese inn) has a room with this privilege. You will then have to reserve beforehand. The advantage of this is so that you can use the onsen anytime you want, without having to worry about sharing it with anyone else, all in the comfort of your own room. Take note, however, that this is only usually available to the high-end hotels that cost lots of money – think a thousand or so dollars per night.
- Next is an onsen designated specifically for private-use. This is called “kashikiri buro”. Instead of having the onsen right by your room, this is an onsen is located outside of your room, in its own establishment/location, or within your ryokan’s premises. You then rent it or reserve it for a specific time – which usually averages about an hour per reservation.
- The most common is the public onsen, which are bathhouses you can walk in and use but must share with other people. This is usually gender-segregated. The spaciousness of this kind of onsen, as well as the quality of water used (it often has restorative and healing properties from sulfuric spring water), makes all the difference between using a smaller private onsen that has normal water. This option lets you experience the true, authentic Japanese onsen experience.
- Lastly, for an even more authentic experience, you can go for an onsen which allows both genders to bathe in the same area. This is called “mixed bathing” – in Japanese, kon'yoku (混浴) and was the original practice in onsens during the Edo period - before the westernization of Japan caused by the Meiji restoration. This is a unique and rare type of onsen because even the locals can get a little uncomfortable sharing a bath with members of the opposite sex – but they do exist, however not in Tokyo, as mixed baths are banned.
Rules to Follow When in An Onsen in Japan
Being respectful and polite is an absolute must in Japanese society, and you are seen as somewhat of a brute or unwanted troublemaker when you do not follow the rules (even though these rules are sometimes unspoken) so learning about proper etiquette to have when in an onsen is crucial. Here’s a list of the customary code to follow in an onsen.
- Make sure your body is clean before entering. You do this by showering and scrubbing with soap and shampoo in the given bathrooms before you enter the onsen. No worries – you can leave your extra things in the available locker room most onsen spots have. The onsen is not something that you dip into to strip off dirt – it is more of something to relax and rejuvenate in. It is simply unacceptable to strip off one’s clothes and head straight to the onsen without cleaning up first.
- Rowdiness, as well as loudness, are not welcome. You may have a peaceful and level-toned conversation with someone beside you, but you must not speak loudly or cause a ruckus, as most people here are trying to relax. Though this rule is applied to everyone, children are usually forgiven for being a little more playful and energetic as they splash into the water. You must be quiet and careful when entering the pool.
- Don’t wear a swimsuit. Wearing any form of clothing is prohibited unless you’re in an onsen that specifically allows it. Tourists may feel uneasy about having to bare it all in front of complete strangers, but this is completely normal in Japanese culture, and you really have nothing to worry about.
- Avoid dipping your towel or washcloth into the water. That washcloth is often used to keep one’s modesty while he or she makes his way into the bath. This towel – in most circumstances – must not touch the water, and should instead be placed outside the onsen, or folded and on top of one’s head. If it ever gets wet, do not wring the cloth into the water either.
- Don’t have any tattoos. Because members of old Japanese gangs used to be identifiable via the tattoos they wore, onsen establishments back then made it a rule to not allow anyone with tattoos to bathe just to keep trouble out.
More About the Tattoo Policy
As Japan no longer has a gang problem, and tattoos are popular with people from all over the world, many tourists who have inked skin come to onsens with the hopes of being able to enjoy one. While it used to be a very strict rule to not allow those with tattoos into the baths, many onsens are starting to relax their regulations on this matter (however, not all onsens will do this) by giving customers patches to cover up their tattoos, so as not to alarm the other guests. There are also designated onsens that are tattoo friendly around Japan.
Three Cheap, Yet Great Onsen Choices in Tokyo
No matter where you are in Japan, you’ll be able to spot onsen in many tourist maps by looking for the specific symbol; “♨”, as well as the kanji for hot water, “湯” (this is pronounced as “yu”), and for children, the hiragana symbol for yu, which is “ゆ” – however, how do you know which onsens are the best? Well, here’s a list.
The Most Popular Onsen By the Bay: Odaiba Tokyo Oedo-Onsen Monogatari
Odaiba Tokyo Oed-Onsen Monogatari is not your ordinary onsen – actually, it is sort of a theme park all about onsen, where you can walk around wearing a “yukata’ (a light cotton kimono). Not only does it have several choices of baths to choose from, it also has a rock salt sauna and a foot bath in its Japanese Garden. The water is taken from 1,400 deep into the ground, piped into the baths, and is packed full of minerals to rejuvenate the skin. Outside the bath area, this spa has everything else you’d need – good food, snack stalls, and fun games, amusement-park style. There are also resting rooms with tatami mats and reclining chairs.
Known for short as “Odeo Onsen Monogatari”, and written in Japanese as “大江戸温泉物語”, a ticket inside can cost from 1,980 yen on weekdays up to 2,180 yen on holidays. It’s so big you can take a shuttle bus there, but its full address is Oedo-ki Harumi 2-6-3. This onsen is rated 4 out of 5 by 928 reviews on TripAdvisor and is the number 1 choice of all Spa and Wellness centers around the area of Koto.
For the Authenticity, Head to Maenohara Onsen Saya-No-Yudokoro
For those who want more of a traditional and tranquil experience of an onsen in Tokyo, Maenohara Onsen Saya-No-Yudukoro also boasts of 4 stars out of 5 on TripAdvisor, rated by 172 people. It ranks as number 1 out of the other 28 facilities dedicated to spas and wellness in Itabashi, Tokyo. It also has a wide array of indoor and outdoor baths to choose from. Within the premises are a dry sauna, a bedrock sauna, and other choices of relaxing therapy. There’s also a restaurant that serves their signature dish made from pure, local buckwheat flour. This dish is called “Juwari Soba”.
For adults, admission costs 870 yen on weekdays, and on holidays and weekends, 1,100 yen. Kids who still go to Primary School, and younger, pay 550 yen on weekdays, and 750 yen on weekends. There are extra amenities you can pay for, such as towels, and bathrobes. The address of this onsen is 3-41-1 Maenocho, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo 174-0063. It is open from 10 AM until 1 AM, with the last admission at 12 AM.
Nearer Hotel Choices in Central Tokyo - Thermae Yu
Making the effort to travel to a far place can be tiring and confusing, so some people opt for the nearest onsen, even if it’s within the concrete jungle of Shinjuku, and far from any semblance of nature. Not as popular with foreigners as it is with locals, the secret oasis that is Thermae Yu makes up for that with its premium amenities. Just exit the Shinjuku station from the East Exit, and take a leisurely 12-minute walk, and you can relax in a lovely onsen.
As for the baths, there are still options of indoor and outdoor baths boasting of a very decent and modern layout. You can also check out the other floors, where they serve food and drinks. The other floors also have lounge areas for you to relax in. Admission rate is 2,364 yen on weekdays, while on weekends it costs 2,688 yen. This onsen is open at 11 am and closes 9 AM the next day. An extra fee will be charged for those who use the facilities form 12 AM to 9 AM onwards.
Onsens You Can Use A Bathing Suit In
If you really don’t want to ditch your clothes when you go for a dip, you still have a couple of choices to head to. There’s an onsen in the style of a pool located in Toshimaen Niwanoyu, and another clothes-friendly onsen in Hakone Kowakien Yunessun, Hotel Sunvalley Nasu, Enoshima Island Spa, and Kastsuura Hotel Mikazuki.
Though Japan reinforces strict rules and regulations, they still want to make sure that every person – including those who are shy about shedding clothes – enjoys their time at the spa. Onsens are for everyone and are popular all over Japan. In fact, the airport you’re in may even have one! Bathing in an onsen can be a very relaxing and soothing experience with awesome benefits for both health and skin. Make sure to visit an onsen when you head to Japan, and not just Tokyo, but wherever in Japan you may be – from Hokkaido to Kyoto, to Kyushu island.