how to onsen

The Ultimate Guide to Onsen Etiquette in Japan | Solo Female Travel

When we begin our journey as a solo female traveller, we all go through massive changes. And it is for the better. We become independent, we become responsible, we become more mature, we learn how not to fuss over everything, we learn how to derive happiness from the little things in life, and so much more. But if you are yet to shed those inhibitions, I have the perfect destination for you.

You may have always wanted to visit Japan, and why not? Where else will every nook and corner of a country take your breath away? From Mount Fuji to coral reef islands down south, Japan is, after all, a country of contrasts. A country where tradition and heritage coexist with modernity in absolute bliss. And if you think that a trip to Japan will cost you a fortune, think again.

Why you might need the Japanese hot springs

But what is a trip to Japan without travelling far and wide and whether you go all out or you travel on a budget, we can all agree that we do have to walk a lot while in Japan. So, remember to carry your comfortable shoes when packing for Japan. 

But you know what you crave after those long days of travelling and walking and hiking? Yes, a warm bath and Japan’s solution for that is an onsen. Naturally gifted with over 4000 natural hot springs because of prevalent volcanic activity, Japan is a dream for you if you love immersing in a hot bath after a hard day of work. As an added advantage, because these are volcanic hot springs, the water is rich in sulphur and sodium chloride, and it apparently works wonders for aching body pains. Not only that, but it is also good for hypertension and even diabetes. So, you actually heal while just relaxing! 

A cultural journey: Hadaka no tsukiai

But an onsen is not just a place where you sit and relax in Japan. Like many other things in Japan, this is something that is embedded in Japanese culture and heritage. But remember, an onsen is different from a sento. Sentos are public bathhouses sprinkled across the country, while onsens are hot water springs rich in nutrients. Some sentos may say that they are onsens but be sure you don’t fall prey to the scam when you book. If you are in a Japanese city and wondering where you can find an onsen, check this out. 

Onsens are a way to experience something called ‘hadaka no tsukiai,’ which literally translates to ‘naked relation.’ I found this a little bizarre in Japan. People in the country are usually shy. If they meet you on the road, they will probably not look you in the eye as a mark of respect but cut to an onsen, they will not think twice before sitting naked beside you in an onsen!   

Yes, you are bare assed in an onsen! You will have your worries at first, no doubt about it. Not all of us are secure with our own bodies (though we should work towards loving our bodies). But if you are just brave enough, a new world awaits you.

So let me quickly go through some tips you must keep in mind before enjoying an onsen in Japan as a solo female traveller.

1. Shed those inhibitions

That is an absolute first step before you can even think about taking a dip in an onsen while in Japan. Remember, nobody is judging your body, and trust me, we all have insecurities. So instead of overthinking it, just step into an onsen for an experience of a lifetime. 

2. Tattoos are a big no-no

As a country, Japan is pretty conservative, and tattoos are looked down upon here. Many onsens don’t allow people with tattoos, and some may allow you depending on the size of the tattoos. But like everything else, things are slowly but steadily changing in Japan. More and more onsens are now allowing tattooed individuals to enjoy the onsen experience. But it’s always better to be sure before we set out to enjoy an onsen. So if you have tattoos, it is better that you clear with the onsen authorities before entering. 

3. Take off your shoes

An onsen is usually quite traditional looking, and you will find them with tatami floors. And so, it is considered extremely rude to wear your shoes inside the premises of an onsen. This is an absolute must etiquette you have to keep in mind when entering an onsen. But don’t worry, you will see a designated area where you can keep your shoes while you enjoy the onsen experience in Japan. Your precious shoes will be kept safe!

4. Women see red

Most onsens in Japan are not mixed and segregated according to gender and the way it is indicated is through colours. The men’s section will have a blue curtain with men inscribed on it in Japanese. For women, the colour of the curtain is red. So always keep that in mind.

5. Carry your own toiletries

If you are wondering if you should pack for coming to an onsen, my answer is yes. You absolutely should. Though a lot of onsens provide the basic toiletries in their bathroom, the quality may not always be good. So, it is better to carry your own products for bathing. If you have long hair, carry plenty of hair ties and scrunchies because you are not allowed to wash your hair in an onsen. So, you will have to wear it up. Also, carry a couple of towels. It is better to bring them than renting them out.

6. Use a toilet before entering an onsen

I don’t know about you but being in the water makes me want to pee. Unfortunately, most onsens do not have a toilet beyond the main area. So, always remember to drink plenty of water and pee properly before coming to an onsen.

7. Change clothes in a dressing room

After you have entered the designated area for females in an onsen, you will be provided with another locker—this time to keep your clothes. Strip down bare and carry a towel with your toiletries inside. 

8. Take a bath before taking a bath in an onsen

This is an absolutely necessary step in your onsen experience. As the water in an onsen is shared, everyone has to make sure that you clean yourself properly before stepping in. You will find bathing areas just outside the onsen. But it is probably not the showers you are used to at home. The bathing experience in Japan is also quite different. Here you have to fill a pail of water and then sit on a stool beside it while you clean yourself from head to toe. After you are done, clean the stool and bathing area before exiting. 

9. Hair, hair

At an onsen, you have to keep in mind that your hair isn’t welcome in hot water. So, after taking a bath, be sure to keep your toiletries in baskets provided by the onsen, rinse your hair and body carefully so that you miss no spots, and then tie your hair up. Use a scrunchie to either make a top knot or a bun at the top of your hair. If you have hair falling on your face, use clips to put it back. 

10. Avoid onsens if you are carrying an injury

If you have a gash or a wound, no matter how small it is, onsens should definitely be avoided. As the onsen water is shared, you have to keep in mind that you keep the water hygienic for others to use as well. Not only that, as the water carries minerals, it might cause harmful reactions if an open wound is exposed to it.

11. No onsens during periods

As a solo female traveller, this is probably your most asked question. Can I enjoy the onsen if I am menstruating? I would definitely advise against it, and the reasons are manifold. For starters, on days of a heavy flow, hot water might make you feel dizzy. Also, even with a tampon in place, menstrual blood might ooze out, and nobody wants bodily fluids in a shared bath, right? Also, mineral water might make its way into your cervical opening and cause major problems. So, it is better to avoid onsens during this time of the month. 

12. Be quiet

Maintaining decorum is a big part of the Japanese lifestyle, and onsen is no different. When you enter the onsen, be sure to be silent. The water will be scathing hot, and it may shock your body when you get in at first. Do not yelp or splash water at others as it is considered very rude. Be calm and remember that even if it seems too hot to sit inside the water, your body will get used to it soon enough, and it will you relax and soothe those nerves. 

13. Don’t hurry

The floor beside the onsen is usually extremely slippery. So don’t rush to get inside an onsen. Instead, try to be as slow as possible so that you don’t fall and break your head there. Or worse, make a fool of yourself!

14. Don’t enter the onsen drunk

Well, this is another basic decorum you must follow. Many onsens provide sake for you but make sure you start drinking after doing the onsen experience. This is because you wouldn’t want someone drunk with you in an onsen, and you mustn’t do it either. 

15. Kakeyu

This is an important practice and one that you should absolutely do before entering an onsen. The tradition of kakeyu is simply getting your body acclimatized with the temperature and getting rid of the excess sweat. You take the water from the onsen in a bucket and pour it little by little over your body to get used to the temperature. According to the tradition, it should be done in 10 pours, but you are free to do as many you please.  

16. Put a towel over your head

This is a method they say to prevent blood from rushing to your head when you submerge yourself into the onsen. Dip the small towel in some cold water, and it will do the trick! But make sure that the towel does not touch the onsen water because that is prohibited. If you are not confident of what to do with your towel, you can always keep it on one of the side racks that will be provided.

17. Avoid submerging up to your shoulders in the first go

When you are entering the tub, do it slowly because a sudden change in temperature can affect your heart. Test the waters before taking the plunge, they say, maybe they were talking about an onsen experience there! Sit and submerge till your waist, and once your body gets used to the temperature, slowly lower yourself and relax. But remember that you are not allowed to mix cold water in the onsen. That is strictly prohibited!

18. Don’t stay in the tub for long

Even though there is no rush and you can stay dipped in water for long, it is hardly advisable to do so. Staying in the hot tub for too long might make you feel nausea, your heart rate might increase, and many other side effects. So, instead, break up your time and dip in the onsen for a while before getting up and taking a breather. Repeat the whole process and get out when you feel uncomfortable.

19. No pictures

Well, this is a given, but I still wanted to point it out. None of the people you are enjoying the onsen with is going to enjoy seeing their naked pictures on your camera reel. So don’t click pictures inside the onsen. Instead, make this one of those experiences you enjoy without bothering too much about capturing it. In that way, this will be etched in your memory forever. However, you can click a ton of pictures if you’re taking private/couples onsens!

20. To bathe or not to bathe

So, what happens after your onsen experience? Do you take a bath again before leaving the premises? Well, that’s a logical question that will pop into your head. The answer to that if you ask me is no. Let me tell you why. It is because as I told you before, the water in the onsen has good chemicals. If you take a bath immediately after, all of it will wash away, and you don’t want that. Instead, just rub off the water with a clean towel before going to the locker where you had kept all your clothes.  

So, if you are planning a solo trip to Japan, be sure to take some time for yourself to relax and enjoy one of the best experiences Japan has to offer.  

Swagachi

An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.

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