Home » The naked truth: a non-nudist’s guide to using a Japanese onsen

The naked truth: a non-nudist’s guide to using a Japanese onsen

written by James Shackell July 24, 2015

Okay, I’ll admit it, I was nervous about using a Japanese onsen. I’m not a big nudist. In fact I think the best time to be nude is when you have a lot of clothes on, and maybe a coat.

So to strip off and bathe in front of a bunch of old Japanese dudes, not to mention a few of my fellow travellers with whom I shared miso soup earlier and would have to make small talk with for the next 10 days, filled me with the sort of apprehension that weirdly manifests in hearty bravado (ie. lies).

“The Onsen? Oh yeah I’ve been three times. It was great! You didn’t see me? Oh. You must have gone in afterwards. Man, how good were those…traditional Japanese baths, am I right?”

An onsen, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a traditional Japanese bathhouse where you sit in piping hot water and cleanse from the outside in. So to save you the awkwardness and prepare you for what you will find lurking in the steam, I’ve prepared this guide. Let’s get it onsen.

Enjoy a traditional onsen experience on an Intrepid trip to Japan!

1. You will be naked. So will everyone else

It may seem self explanatory, but there were a number of people on our trip, myself included to be frank, that expected to be allowed in wearing bathers. “Nope”, we were told by our guides Sylvia, “You go in as you came into this world”. To clarify, that means naked, not screaming.

I’ve heard that some onsens won’t admit people with visible tattoos (why bother with the ‘visible’?) but all I can say is that in the monastery in Koya San that didn’t seem to be a problem. The 60 year-old Japanese man gave my ill-considered ink no more than a friendly, if uncomprehending, smile. Did I mention you’ll be naked? Let’s move on.

An outdoors onsen. Image Isriya Paireepairit, Flickr

An outdoors onsen. Image Isriya Paireepairit, Flickr

 2. What to do with your clothes

Most onsens are divided into two sections, three if you count the showers. There’s the changing room and the steam/bathroom. You enter the change room and leave your clothes, shoes, wallet and watch and whatever else in a small basket, which sits on a shelf. Leave your big towel out here; all you need in the bathroom is the small wash towel, which sits on your head.

I never worked out the point of the wash towel, as it would take a Titanic-size ice cube to cool down your head in there. For clothing, I’d recommend something simple, like a robe. You don’t want to be hopping around undoing belts and things at this point.

READ MORE: A LOCAL’S GUIDE TO VISITING JAPAN ON A BUDGET

3. Washing before the washing

It’s considered very bad form to simply hop into the bath (cannonballing is even worse). You’ll notice off to the side a row of miniature stools, each with a shower head and a bar of soap next to it. The idea is to sit uncomfortably on these stools and wash yourself thoroughly before getting in the bath. And I mean thoroughly. I saw a Japanese man wash himself the same way hippos are washed at the zoo. But it fits with the meticulous and conscientious nature of Japanese society.

Like anthropologist Scott Clark said, “to take a bath in Japan with an understanding of the event is to experience something Japanese. It is to immerse oneself in culture as well as water.”

'Bath' doesn't really do it justice, does it? Image naitokz, Flickr

‘Bath’ doesn’t really do it justice, does it? Image naitokz, Flickr

 4. Soak it all in

The best part. There’s something freeing and joyous about sloshing around wearing nothing at all. In earlier times, women and men bathed together, but single sex onsens have been the norm since Japan opened its doors (and tubs) to the Western world during the Meiji Restoration. The water itself feels amazing. It’s usually at least 40 degrees or hotter, sourced from geothermal springs, and must contain (by law) at least one of 19 designated chemical elements like iron or sulphur.

A few old Japanese guys waved at me, smiled and said something I didn’t understand. I waved awkwardly back, the international symbol for “I hope what you said wasn’t an insult but I have no way of knowing for sure.”

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5. Time to go

You’ll figure out pretty quickly that the onsen isn’t really something you can do for hours. The water is just too hot. Stay more than 30 minutes and you’ll come out looking like a boiled lobster. When you want to leave, nod politely to the old Japanese guys, hop out and scurry back to the change room.

I have to admit, after I’d done it once, the onsen lost its anxious edge. Nobody cared about nakedness in there. Those Japanese guys couldn’t have been less self-conscious, and their attitude kind of rubbed off. I won’t say the experience has transformed me into a proud nudist, but I did leave more comfortable in my own skin. Bring on bath time.

Ready to brave the onsen yourself? You’ll need one of our Japan small group adventures

Feature image c/o spDuchamp

 

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12 comments

David February 20, 2019 - 9:39 am

Margaret, I’m not on Facebook but do enjoy both reading and responding to a good number of posts on these blogs. Intrepid bloggers do really have some amazing adventures. Good to re-read this item…and still wish we had some in N W England, Alan

Reply
Wayne Emde March 9, 2017 - 1:27 am

One of my sons lives in Japan and although we both have a few tattoos, we have never been barred from onsens. We have received curious looks from other bathers from time to time, but in general, Japanese are very forgiving of foreigners. However, in his city, the onsen that we use is Yakusa connected and there are many Japanese men with full body tattoos there.

Reply
Alberto July 21, 2017 - 5:01 am

Hi!,
could you tell me which one is it. I have a lot of tattoos and will be in japan for a month and don t want to miss the onset experience.

Thanks

Reply
Edward March 5, 2017 - 12:22 am

One thing I wished someone taught me before going to Japan is how to use a traditional squat toilet. I couldn’t figure out which way to face. And then there are toilets like this with a ton of buttons where I couldn’t even figure out how to flush!

Reply
Eviara August 14, 2016 - 8:07 pm

Is is weird because we will not be wearing anything..?

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Alan Rimmer August 3, 2016 - 9:03 pm

Margaret, I’m not on Facebook but do enjoy both reading and responding to a good number of posts on these blogs. Intrepid bloggers do really have some amazing adventures. Good to re-read this item…and still wish we had some in N W England, Alan

Reply
Margaret Harris August 2, 2016 - 4:58 pm

How do I UNSUBSCRIBE from these posts on Facebook?

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Emily Kratzmann August 3, 2016 - 1:28 pm

Hi Margaret,

To stop seeing posts, just go to the Intrepid Travel Facebook page and ‘unlike’ us.

Cheers,
Emily – Intrepid.

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Alan January 27, 2016 - 3:34 am

Hi James…

…good article. Pity we don’t have them in North West England !!

Enjoy all future onsens/bathing.

Alan

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Lea September 9, 2015 - 11:48 pm

I’ll be traveling through Japan in October and November. I really want to visit an onsen, but I read that people with tattoos are not that welcome in these baths. There are two Stars on my hips, so I’m not tattooed all over the body, but you can definitely see them. Has anyone experience with tattoos in onsen?
I can cope with the stares, I just don’t want to offend anyone 😀

Reply
James Shackell September 10, 2015 - 10:09 am

Hi Lea,

Don’t worry. From what I found most onsens don’t seem to mind too much, particularly the ones in hotels and the more touristy areas. I didn’t have any trouble with my tattoos.

Cheers
James

Reply
Mike September 11, 2015 - 4:26 am

I am currently in Kobe Japan staying at a Sheraton Hotel that has a well reviewed osen. There are signs posted that if you have tattoos they have the right to not let you in. Tattoos in Japan are associated with the Yakusa which is their version of the mob.

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