A Beginner's Guide to Onsen

寒けれど
酒もあり
湯もある処

It is cold, but
we have sake
and the hot spring

-- Masaoka Shiki

Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese word for hot springs; quite literally, at that, since 温 on is "warm" and 泉 sen is "spring". Japan is a very volcanically active country, resulting not only in frequent earthquakes, but also an abundance of hot springs throughout the archipelago.

While summers in Japan are sweltering, winters can be quite cold, and houses are rarely built for comfort. Consequently, the cleanliness-obsessed Japanese have learned to love their hot water (湯 yu). Nearly every Japanese home has its own bath (お風呂 ofuro), and those cities with the misfortune of being away from hot springs have plenty of sento (銭湯), public baths.

Enough introductions! The meat of this writeup is a guide for how to behave at a Japanese hot spring, along with a handy glossary for onsen terminology.

The Two Really, Really Important Kanji

If you learn only one thing from this writeup, learn to differentiate these:

男 men / 女 women

Japanese Bath Etiquette

There is exactly one rule of Japanese bathing that you must obey: wash and rinse before entering the bathtub. Washing is work, get it out of the way first; when you're nice and clean, get into the tub and soak.

But lest you're still nervous, here's the choreography for an entire visit. The process is more or less identical for public onsen, sento, a hotel's private bath, even bathing at a friend's house.

  1. Identify your bath by using the handy kanji key above on the noren curtains hanging in front of the door. Men's baths are also usually colorcoded blue, while women are red.

  2. Enter changing room, leaving slippers at the doorway. Pick an empty basket (kago) and undress, placing all your garments in the basket. If there are lockers, place your valuables in them and take the key.

    Note: Undress means all the way, so no bathing suits, no nothing. Leave your hangups about public nudity in the basket.

  3. Take your teeny-weeny towel (usually provided) and enter bath room. Take a silly little stool, sit down, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all suds off once clean. Breaking this little rule is one of the very, very few ways you can seriously piss off people in Japan.

  4. Enter bath tub slowly, trying not to yell in pain even though the water is boiling. Hissing aaaa-atsee! ("dang, this is hot!") through your teeth, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable. It is mildly bad form to let your towel touch the water, so you may wish to fold it atop your head.

  5. Soak. Enjoy.
    Note: Alas, most onsen prohibit the consumption of drinks in the tub itself, even though most Japanese dearly love to do this. Then again, if you've got one all to yourself and there's no management around to complain... and if you drink sake, nobody will even notice a little spill!
  6. When sufficiently cooked, wash yourself once again and repeat the process in reverse.

  7. You can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyûkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine, nearby. Sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap. That's what it's there for!

Things to Say

O-yu ni hairu (お湯に入る)
O-yu kara agaru (お湯から上がる)
You do not "take a bath" in Japan, instead you "enter hot water" (o-yu ni hairu). However, you do not get "out" of the bath either, you "rise" (agaru) out of it.
Go-yukkuri dôzo! (ごゆっくりどうぞ!)
What you say to someone who is going to take a bath; literally "Honorable-slowly please!". Basically "take your time and enjoy".
Atsui! Atchiatchi! Aaaaachee! (熱い! 熱ち熱ち! 熱〜ちぇぇ!)
Hot! Hothothot! Aaaaaiiiigh!
Kimochi ii! (気持ちいい!)
Think James Brown, because this means "I feel good", and it's what you say after successful immersion in the bath. (Or while receiving oral sex, but better hope you're not the one cleaning the tub afterwards.)

A really bad pun: Enter the bath with a tub of Korean pickles. Once immersed, tear off the cover, deeply inhale the scent of spicy fermented cabbage, and rapturously exclaim: Kimuchiii!

Sukkiri/Refuresshu shita! (すっきり/レフレッシュした!)
"Refreshing!", both in real Japanese and a trendy loanword (refresh in katakana). This is what you say after getting out of the bath. You can also change the previous expression into the past tense to say that you felt good: kimochi yokatta.

Bath Types

yu (湯 or ゆ)
"Hot water". Both onsen and their individual tubs are very often named Something-no-Yu. The kanji version 湯 tends to mean water hot enough to boil tea, while ゆ usually means the bathwater used to boil you, but this is just an informal convention. Half the more modern spas in Japan are oh-so-cleverly named Yutopia (har har!).
furo (風呂)
The generic term for a tub of any sort. Almost always prefixed with the honorable o- if used alone.
rotenburo (露天風呂)
An open air bath ("dew sky bath" to be quite literal). Definitely the choice of the connoisseur, there are few things more enjoyable than to soak in a rotenburo with a scenic view, especially when it's cold outside.
notenburo (野天風呂)
Whereas a rotenburo is usually an outdoor annex to an onsen building, a notenburo ("field sky bath") is just a no-frills tub exposed to the elements. Rather rare.
mizuburo (水風呂)
"Mizu" is not Japanese for water, it's Japanese for cold water. And that's what these baths are filled with, so enter at your own risk.
toruko buro (トルコ風呂)
Literally Turkish bath, but this is no steam sauna: in Japan this means a brothel. This term is pretty much obsolete though; the newer term is soapland, and you're usually not going to find these in onsen towns anyway.
kon'yoku (混浴)
Mixed bath for both men and women. An endangered species in hotels, but still a common sight in the countryside, especially for free public baths in onsen towns. While men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it's a rare woman who'll enter one without a bathing suit these days -- not that men will object if she does! Commercial operations with konyoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
kashikiri furo (貸し切り風呂)
A reserved, private bath. Swankier onsen ryokan usually have a couple of these, although you often have to pay for the privilege. These days these are pretty much the only way to get nekkid with members of the opposite sex, but needless to say they aren't going to magically appear without a personal invitation.
sotoyu (外湯) and uchiyu (内湯)
These terms -- "outside bath" and "inside bath" respectively -- are used only when staying at a hot spring hotel. The uchiyu are the hotel's own facilities, inside the building, while sotoyu refers to any and all public baths in the town outside. It is not unusual for hotels to give guests discount coupons, or even free passes, to other facilities in town.

A Few Recommendations

And what would a guide be without some impossibly obscure recommendations? But don't worry if you never find your way to these in particular, Japan is full of hot springs and finding your very own favorite is an obligatory rite of passage for every long-term visitor.

Kappa-no-Yu (かっぱの湯)
Oku-Yagen, Shimokita Peninsula, Tohoku

At the northern tippytop of Honshu, in the middle of the sparsely populated axe of Shimokita and a stone's throw away from the dread Mt. Osore, the Gate of Hell, lies the beautiful valley of Yagen. The last inhabited village is the Oku (Inner) Yagen, a tiny huddle consisting of a liquor store, a few minshuku, a camping ground, and no less than 3 absolutely free publicly maintained rotenburo with views of the rapids rushing by. One is for married couples (Meoto-no-Yu 夫婦の湯), one is for virgins (Otome-no-Yu 乙女の湯) and the last is for humanoid frogs (Kappa-no-Yu かっぱの湯).

Definitely my favorite, especially considering value for money (and ignoring the expense of getting there).

Shin-Hotaka (新穂高)
Oku-Hida Onsen Village, Gifu, Chubu
At the other end of the swank spectrum, any of the 7 Oku-Hida Onsen Villages, nestled deep in the Japan Alps, are well worth a stay for the scenery alone. The cheapest way to get here is to bring your own wheels and camp, dipping into the copious free public baths along the way, but much more fun would be to stay at an onsen ryokan. In Shin-Hotaka, the newest and smallest of the seven, both Shinzansou (深山荘) and its annex Yari-no-Sato (槍の郷) in the shadow of mighty snow-capped Yarigatake are excellent. Expect to spend around ¥15,000 a head for a night and two extraordinary meals. And don't forget a bottle of Himuro.
Wakoto (和琴)
Lake Kussharo, Hokkaido
Located on a tiny volcano at the edge of Lake Kussharo. Not even an onsen, just a simple rotenburo sitting outside and a little hut with a tub hidden in the woods, with the stink of sulphur wafting about. The perfect place for a free morning dip after a night at the adjacent camping ground.
Dogo Onsen (道終温泉)
Matsuyama, Shikoku
And last but not least, a very un-obscure recommendation: Dôgô is quite possibly the most famous onsen in Japan. It's old, it's full of tourists, it's not particularly cheap... but it has oodles of character and the building alone is worth seeing. See the writeup for the full scoop.
Honorable mentions
Kappa-no-Yu, Yumoto Onsen, Hakone, Kanto
Kamuiwakkayu Waterfall, Shiretoko, Hokkaido
Mt. Yudono, Dewa Sanzan, Tohoku
Hokuo Spa and Capsule Hotel, Sapporo, Hokkaido

References and Vaguely Related Further Reading

Extensive personal experience
A Beginner's Guide to Sake
making love in Japanese

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