My absolute favorite Japanese cultural experience was the onsen.
It was also the one I was most hesitant to try.
But, with the encouragement of my daughter-in-law who had lived in Japan as a teacher, I went. For her it had been a weekly ritual with a girlfriend. Hop on bikes, cycle to a super onsen, soak, have dinner, go home.
It sounded idyllic so I sought out a super onsen in Kyoto. After doing my research - which, as it happens, didn't help a lot - off I went.
Here I want to share with you how to enjoy an onsen in a way that will be of more value to you.
Onsen Basics - Five Things You Need to Know
- You will be naked. One never wears a bathing suit into an onsen. Because it is the way of everyone and it is a common Japanese activity, you need not worry. Bodies of all shapes and sizes are at the onsen. I have, as have most North American women, struggled with body image all my life. The onsen was an incredibly liberating experience.
- Onsens are almost always gender exclusive. There will either be separate onsens for women and men or, if there is only one onsen, there will be separate hours for each. If you're looking for them, there are mixed onsens.
- Wash well before entering. This is the most important rule of an onsen. The Japanese are very clean people and nowhere is that more obvious than in the onsen. I'll go through the specifics of the washing ritual below.
- Linger and enjoy. Japanese culture can be quite intense. Work hours are long. Expectations are high. The purpose of the onsen is not just to get clean but to relax, meet with friends, gossip, and linger. Do as much of that as you can.
- Look for an onsen, not a sento. The difference between an onsen and a sento is that the former is of natural hot spring water and the latter are just heated baths. As a visitor I would look for the true onsen experience.
The Super Onsen: What I Loved About It
A super onsen is one with many pools, a restaurant, and other facilities. I only went to one super onsen when I was in Japan, the Tenzan-no-Yu in Kyoto. It was fantastic. Plan to spend many hours.
In addition to six large pools of different temperatures, two saunas, a variety of individual tubs, the necessary wash stations and dry rooms, Tenzan-no-Yu has a full restaurant, a juice bar, a body care area where you can get massages, and couple of rest areas.
My favorite pool option was what they call the Utata Hot Water Pool. It is one of the exterior pools and is very shallow and divided into four bed-like sections. Each has a stone for your head. You lie down on your back and the water will rise to about halfway up your body, leaving the back of your body warm in the mineral waters and your front cool in the air. It was fantastic.
After my soak I dried off and got dressed and had a fresh smoothie from their juice bar. Then I went for a massage which, I have to admit, was harder than most I've experienced. Shiatsu is performed fully clothed and it is my preferred massage therapy at home. This was a much harder version than I'm used to but, like all such body care, it felt great when it was over.
I have never felt more free and less body conscious than in this onsen. After my soak, while sipping my juice I enjoyed an amazing feeling of deep relaxation. It was noticeable all over my body.
The cost is 1,050 yen or about Cdn$12 or US$10, plus 200 yen for a towel rental. People with tattoos are not allowed to enter.
How To Go to an Onsen
Onsen etiquette is quite specific but it's not complicated. It's also a little different between an onsen and a super onsen, so here are your tips for both.
The Super Onsen Experience
- Front desk. Check in at the front desk where you will get a key for a locker. If you need a towel, rent one here. Confirm that there is soap and shampoo in the washing area in case you need to buy some. That's unusual.
- Change room. Go into the change room, remove all your clothes and any jewelry and put them and everything else you have in your locker. You can take your towel with you if you like. Your locker key will be on a wristband.
- Washing area. Enter the onsen and go to the washing section. Get a small cloth either as you enter or near the washing area. There will be small stools in front of a tap, a spray nozzle, and a small basin. There is usually soap and shampoo as well. Sit on the stool, soap up well, and rinse off. You can wash your hair if you wish. You are expected to sit on the stool and try to minimize the amount of water you spray beyond your own body. If they have shower booths you can use these as well.
- Soak! You are now ready to enjoy a good soak. The various pools may have digital signs indicating the temperature of each pool. Look for the cold plunge pool for after your hot soaks. Check the outdoor pools as well. I enjoyed these most. Your hair and towel should not enter the water.
- Return to change room. Before re-entering the change room, dry off as much as possible, whether that's with a towel you brought with you or just by brushing the water off with your hands. In the change room you can get dressed. There will also likely be an area with mirrors and hair dryers for you to dry your hair and freshen up.
- Enjoy the rest. I was at the super onsen mid-day so I didn't have a meal but do enjoy the juice bar or restaurant after your soak. It is an extension of the relaxing onsen experience. You may also want to book a shiatsu to loosen your body further after your soak.
The Onsen Experience
- Dry room. In a small onsen there are often only two rooms. The dry room where you get changed and put all your belongings in a basket and the washing and pool room that may only have one pool. Strip down in the dry room and put everything in a basket.
- Pool room. Take the small cloth from the dry room and enter the wet room. Again, there will be stools in front of faucets. Lather up and wash completely, again, staying seated. Enter the pool and enjoy. If there is only one pool there will be taps for cold water for you to cool off with. Again, dry down as much as possible before entering the dry room.
- Back in the dry room. Dry and dress fully relaxed.