Japanese Bathhouse Do's and Don'ts

By Amanda Little

You've seen the sights, visted otherworldly cafes, strolled through zen gardens, and more in Japan. You're ready to wind down for the day, so why not visit an onsen, a traditional Japanese bathhouse? When it comes to soaking and revitalizing the spirits, an onsen is a wonderful treat, but can be a bit tricky to navigate. Check out our onsen do's and don'ts to navigate the Japanese bathhouse with ease.

Do leave your phone behind. There are absolutely no photos permitted in an onsen, including selfies. This is also a quiet area, where there is little to no talking. It’s for unwinding, so mind your speaking volume.

Don’t use the onsen as a bath. These tranquil pools are for soaking only. No lathering up, no swimming or splashing, and no dirty bodies! Shower thoroughly beforehand, and be absolutely certain you do not put your head under the water.

Do use bandages or tattoo covers while visiting an onsen. Tattoos are associated with yakuza, and so they are completely forbidden in almost every onsen in the country. Even a small tattoo can get you kicked out.

Don’t wear any clothes. At all. The only thing allowed in an onsen is your clean body, and a small hand towel that must not go in the water. Fold it up and rest it on top of your head. You can use it to wipe your face, but other than that, not even towels make it into the bathhouse.

Do go into the right onsen. Many are separated by gender, so a mix-up can be an unfortunate mistake. However, there are some public onsens open to all, so be aware of the house rules before going.

Now that you've got your bathhouse rules down, why not check out some of these breathtaking onsens?

Yufuin • Oita

Watch with awe as you wander by many of the events that take place here, from movie and music festivals to beef eating and screaming competitions, until you find your way to the highly popular Yufuin Onsen. Elegant ryokans, river basins, misty waters (especially in the winter), fantastic scenery, and more all await those who bath in the waters at the foot of Mt. Yufudake. This hot spring is separated by gender, but tends to draw more of a female crowd, with charming restaurants and shops, and individual museums providing hours of entertainment. Kawakami, Yufuincho, Yufu-shi, Oita

Gero • Gifu

One of the hot springs in Gifu is called Gero, and it is one of the three most famous bath houses in Japan, alongside Arima Onsen and Kusatsu Onsen. Wandering through Gero Onsen Gasshomura village where traditional Japanese houses dwell, morning fairs reign over the summer, and baths await to ease your stress away makes for a wonderful way to spend a few days. Take a dip in Gero’s baths, and bring your camera for wandering. While the summer festivals are fun, Gifu is known for its stunning autumn colors. Gero-shi, Gifu

Beppu • Oita

Known for having the largest number of hot spring wells in japan, those visiting Beppu can enjoy their leisure time trying different pools, or embarking on the Beppu Hell Tour. Called Beppu Jigoku Meguri in Japanese, the hell tour consists of visiting each different spring like Sea Hell, Blood Pond Hell, White Pond Hell, Tornado Hell, and more. You can visit any of the 8 different springs that all feature in the public baths, as well as have onsen eggs, which are cooked in hot springs a little too hot for humans, but perfect for cooking. If you’re looking for a very different experience, you can also take a sand bath in fine sand that has been thermally heated. You can be buried up to your neck in sand, or you can soak in muddy hot water baths. Beppu-shi, Oita

Arima • Hyogo

Just an hour away from Osaka is the gold and silver springs, better known as Kinsen and Ginsen, and both of them dwell in Arima Onsen. This famous hot spring was loved by historic rulers, both for its stunning temples and shrines, and therapeutic hot springs. The town itself is so small you can explore the entire thing on foot, but vising one of Japan’s oldest hot springs is a huge draw. You can bathe in the muddy red-brown spring, rich in iron deposits that is said to be good for skin ailments and muscle pain, or the clear spring which has radium and carbonate for muscle and joint ailments, among many others. Some baths are only open to over-night stays, but many of them are public and open to all. Kita-ku, Kobe-shi, Hyogo

Shibu • Nagano

If you’re looking for some monkey business while soaking in the tub, head to the Shibu Onsen, the only hot spring in the world where you can see wild monkeys enjoying the steaming bath waters. The traditional architecture of the town makes it perfect for strolling and enjoying your time in traditional onsen clothing, yukata robes and geta sandals, is not only usual, its encouraged! However, only one bath house is open to day-trippers and non-locals. The other eight are reserved for locals and over-night guests. It’s recommended to stay overnight because of this, and because of the legend that says those who visit all nine are blessed with good fortune. Yamanouchi-machi, Shimotakai-gun, Nagano

Jinata Onsen • Shikine-jima

For those looking to pack some adventure into their onsen experience, Jinata is for you. Travel to the tiny island of Shikine-jima from downtown Tokyo, and wait for high tide. Without the ocean water mixing in with the onsen water, it will be way too hot to go in. There are two other onsen on the island where you can spend your time waiting for the tide if you like! When heading towards Jinata Onsen, be sure to pack your hiking boots. The steep stairs leading down to the ocean are a bit rough, but the view is incredible. The rust-colored water here is unique, and known for alleviating nerve pain, cold intolerance, and joint pain. There isn’t a changing room here, it’s all natural. So you may want to have your bathing suit prepared, it’s one of the few onsens that allow it. Jinata Onsen, Niijima, Shikinejima, Japan

Noboribetsu • Hokkido

Recognized as the best onsen in Hokkido with easy access, rich history, high quality, and notability, Noboribetsu offers springs rich in sulfur and hydrogen sulfide, known for softening and lightening skin. The onsen also had iron rich baths which quickly and easily lighten fatigue. This resort is so famous and popular, it offers 11 different kinds of thermal baths, which are ranked among Japans best and most effective treatments. The resort town is made up of hotels with special baths reserved for guests, but there are many baths open to those only there for the day, as well as the very large public bath house open to all in the center of town. Noboribetsu Onsencho, Noboribetsu-shi, Hokkaido

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