Visiting the Onsen, or The Best Apres-Ski Ever

School and work resumed this week but fond memories of last week’s ski trip live on; I’ll post a few final thoughts from our ski trip over the coming days.

Our hotel included a traditional onsen, or public bath. Plenty of ski accommodations around the world include hot tubs for soaking tired bodies after a day on the slopes–but an onsen is so much more. Operators of Western-style hot tubs treat the water heavily with chlorine, knowing that their patrons will heave their smelly bodies into the hot tub without rinsing off first. Onsen patrons know to wash thoroughly first–and actually follow the rules!

Just like public baths in other cultures, onsens originated with one simple intention: to give residents of homes without running water the chance to bathe regularly. The rise of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century AD added an element of ritual cleansing and purification to the practice, and you can reach more about the onsen’s history in Japan here. Long after the ubiquity of running water in homes, onsens remain a strong tradition in Japan.

While only higher-end hotels in the U.S. typically feature spas, even economy Japanese hotels and campgrounds often include an onsen. Our first onsen experience last autumn was at Oonoji, a campground near Mount Fuji.

The gold standard is the geothermal onsen, where the spring water bubbles from the earth at the perfect temperature. Most onsens in rural settings use local spring water but some heat the water as needed.

If you search for images of onsens online, you will likely see spectacular results like this:

Shirahone Onsen
Shirahone Onsen geothermal bathing spa pools

Images by

Our hotel’s onsen was a little more humble and resembled this one–very clean but more utilitarian than luxurious:

This photo of Yarimikan is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Public onsens separate the facilities by gender. The few onsens that I have visited have fixed, separate facilities for men and women, but some older onsens may have only one facility with hours designated for each gender. The hours may switch each day; for instance, the noon to 4PM slot may be men only on Monday and women only on Tuesday.

Some facilities also offer private onsens for rent, giving families the chance to soak as one squabbling crowd. Kidding! Though not really. The thought of my kids harassing each other non-stop while naked would totally suck the zen right out of the moment–but to each his own!

Foreigners often fear the first onsen experience as a series of faux pas waiting to happen; I know I did. Four consecutive days of onsen visits helped me get over my fears.

The onsen is split into two basic areas: dry and wet. You remove your shoes just prior to the dry area and claim a basket or locker for your clothes and the big towel that you will use later to dry off. Then you get naked. But hang on to your wash towel, also known as a modesty towel. The towel is just long enough to cover the ladies from mid-chest to mid-thigh; the men hold said towel in front, crotch-high.

The wet area sits behind sliding doors and consists of a series of wash stations with the following items at each: a small stool, a shallow bucket for mixing up soapy water and pouring over your body, a hand held sprayer, a faucet that points straight down to fill your shallow bucket, and an assortment of body soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Just beyond the wash stations sits the warm bath itself. Many onsens include both indoor and outdoor pools. The pool’s water is untreated and contains no added chemicals of any kind. Instead guests must wash themselves thoroughly–and I mean thoroughly–to keep the water clean.

After repeated onsen visits, I realized that a typical onsen visit was regulated by a few basic rules. The rules took very little time to master; that’s when I started noticing onsen habits that make you look like you know what you’re doing.

The Rules

-Get Naked
No clothes, swim suits, or even shower shoes. Get totally, completely naked except for the aforementioned modesty towel.

-Wash everything
Shampoo your hair, and scrub down everything with that modesty towel and soapy water. Rinse really, really thoroughly so no soap residue remains.

-Gently enter the pool
No splashing, diving, or breaching whale imitations.

-Never dip your wash towel into the pool
You got that towel soapy, so keep it out of the water! Many people put their towel on top of their heads, though it’s also OK to set the towel on the pool’s edge.

-No tattoos
In Japan only prisoners and yakuza (organized crime) sport tattoos, so no ink of any kind is permitted–even for foreigners. If you have a small tattoo then you may get away with a small waterproof bandage, but any tattoos that are too big to cover mean that you need to pony up for a private onsen.

And that’s pretty much it for the rules. So what makes you look like an onsen pro?

The Habits

-Put up your hair
Even though you shampooed that hair thoroughly, put up long hair in a clip or elastic to keep it out of the water.

-Dump shallow bucketfuls of water over your body
This helps warm up your body gradually and acclimate to the warm water of the soaking pool. Also you look like you know what you’re doing as you heave buckets of water around.

-Keep track of that wash station hose
A loose hose will flail around as soon as water starts running through it. Don’t be that person–and take it from someone who was That Person. At least no one else was around to witness my stupidity. Also, when you’re spraying, make sure that the hose is always pointing down so you don’t spray the person across from you. This happened to me, only I was the sprayee and not the sprayer.

And that’s it! So if you ever find yourself with the chance to visit an onsen–go for it!

Just watch that hose.



One thought on “Visiting the Onsen, or The Best Apres-Ski Ever

  1. Donald Kane

    Hi Marta, Loved this adventure.  I did have a Onsen experience but not like yours. When stationed at Clark, we would go to Japan and do heating plant stack surveys to check contaminate emissions against Japanese standards to make sure the Military was meeting them.  The process would take about 5 days.  1 day to construct an support structure around the outside of the heating plant’s smoke stack, either outside the building (usually on the roof) or inside.   Requirements were that we get sampling  ports driled into the stacks about 4 diameters up from the last bend.  Wanted to sample in laminar flow. For a sampling job at Misawa,  I had arranged to bring the young female Philippine chemist with me to do the on site chem and particulate analysis of what we sampled.   But, at the last minute, her visa did not come in on time.  So, she stayed home. We set up our sampling structure inside the heating plant.  The Japanese workers had their own Onsen in one corner of the heating plant floor, out in the open.  It was part of the US/Japan Status of Forces agreement.  Towards the end of each shift, they would put away their tools, hang up their work clothing and get ready for the Onsen; all on work time.   Our “chem lab” was set up next to the Onsen (both out in the open).   The workers nonchalantly stripped down, got out the stool and bucket of warm water and soap and cleaned up, rinsed off and got into the hot tub.Glad she could not get her visa;  she would have died of embarrassment and I would have lost a great chemist. Don


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