A Beginner's Guide to Onsen
It is cold, but
we have sake
and the hot spring
-- Masaoka Shiki
(温泉) is the Japanese
word for hot springs
literally, at that, since 温 on
" and 泉 sen
". Japan is a very volcanic
ally active country,
resulting not only in frequent earthquake
s, 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
男 men / 女 women
There is exactly one rule of Japanese bathing that you must obey:
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- When sufficiently cooked, wash yourself once again and
repeat the process in reverse.
- 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
O-yu kara agaru
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.
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!
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:
"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.
(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
The generic term for a tub of any sort. Almost always prefixed
with the honorable o- if used alone.
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.
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.
"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.
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
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.
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.
(外湯) and uchiyu
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
full of hot springs and finding your very own favorite is an
rite of passage
for every long-term visitor.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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