I’ve been to Japan twice in 2017. During the first trip, I was offered to be driven to the local onsen in rural Gifu by my host family, but I politely declined because I did not know what to do as I had not researched much about the onsen culture. However, I was again in Japan the second time a few months after and onsens still intrigued me. Hence I went to Oedo Onsen with my friend from Junior College…
It was embarrassing at first. I didn’t know the procedure even though I’ve read countless of onsen etiquette articles and watched so many YouTube videos about it. I didn’t want to be that ignorant tourist as I wanted to be respectful as much as possible and still enjoy one of the most calming and cherished practices in Japan.
First, we paid for our entrance and were given tickets in the form of a key fob* and a key and instructions were given to head to the Kimono section next. Chose our kimonos and went into one of the two rooms that will lead to the onsen. We went into the Red one, which was for the females. Very important!!! Anyway, Oedo Onsen is a special onsen where there is literally an arcade inside and food stalls.
So you enter into the locker room first and you have your key for your locker. Put all your stuff inside and STRIP THERE AND THEN. I’m not kidding. At this stage, you have to put everything into your locker and put on your kimono and sash (obi). My friend and I stumbled to wear the kimono because we had never worn one. We asked a friendly obaachan who finished her time at the onsen, and she helped us align the kimono and tied our obi for us. Truly felt like a princess!! (Important tip: always say Sumimasen before you ask a favour. That signifies the intension to ask permission and means, Excuse Me!)
So now, we’re ready… to head to the onsen! Well, not yet.
You proceed to another area, first getting two towels – one big and one small from a friendly girl at the counter. We were unsure what to do next, so we asked her. Luckily, she spoke English and told us to take off our clothes and put it in another locker. This second locker area is combined with the dressing room where naked ladies are everywhere. Put your BIG towel into the locker, only bringing the small one into the onsen.
So we went to the locker, this time a smaller square one, and put our kimono inside and your spectacles if you wear them. Now, we’re really naked, and straight we went into the onsen area. BUT! Before you plunge yourself into the hot water, you must scrub yourself clean.
Shampoo your hair, scrub your body.
From top to toe. Make sure all the suds are washed off your body
Oedo Onsen provided Shampoo and Body Gel and all the lotions that were from the Shiseido line. However, if you go to a local onsen, these items such as shower gel and towels might not be provided, so BRING YOUR OWN or you will have to pay 600 yen (at least) for everything you don’t have.
We went through a glass door, transitioning from the dry area to the wet, and proceeded to wash our bodies first with a well water kind of thing, and then went to a special area with stools. Sit down, start showering. Nobody is going to look at you because everyone is doing the same thing. Start shampooing. My friend and I helped each other to scrub and wash our backs. I kind of understood how onsens help people remain people, with no other thing such as job titles in the way. It’s just you in your natural skin, although I’m still embarrassed. But I became less aware of my nakedness, because everyone is naked.
After washing off all the soap, wring out as much water as possible from your hair. If your hair is long, tie it. It’s important that the hair does not touch the onsen water, even though you have shampooed it.
Now everyone is clean and satisfied… TIME TO JUMP IN!
And no! You’ll be glared at by everyone, from the obaachan to the little kid. It’s very rude to splash water intentionally onto someone else and this is not a swimming pool. It’s a public bath for relaxation, so the atmosphere must be kept calm.
Slowly step into the water, holding onto the railings if you must. Get your feet adjusted to the heat (there are many pools in Oedo Onsen with differing temperatures and purposes) before you fully submerge yourself up to your neck. So where do you put your small towel? Neatly fold it and put it on your head. If your towel happens to fall off into the pool, wring the water outside of the pool because it is rude to squeeze the water into the pool.
Usually people will stay in each pool from seconds to 3 minutes because it is hot. In Oedo Onsen, there is an ice cold pool to calm your muscles from the hot springs of water.
……. Oh wait. You’re not going to stay there forever are you? So when my friend and I were ready to go, we went back inside and wiped ourselves down with the small towel. As much as possible, go to the small lockers dry so that the floors aren’t wet. Grab your clothes, wear them and head to the dressing area and dry your hair! Start putting on make-up or whatever you want to do, and then you can head to the food/arcade area where both genders can meet.
* The key fob can be used as currency to buy food by scanning it. When you return your key fob, you will pay what you have spent!
Most onsens in Japan are segregated by sex, and it’s becoming rarer to come across a mixed bath because of Westernisation values.
Nonetheless, I hope I have given you the gist of what to expect in an onsen. I really want to go again, and this time to a different, more local onsen. Or maybe get an onsen pass in the Kamikochi region if I’m ever there again. Or maybe explore rural towns on motorbike. Gotta save up for that, I suppose!
Hope this guide helps for those planning to visit an onsen!