The Insider’s Guide to Visiting an Onsen in Japan: Part 1
A friend of mine in China recently came to visit Japan. Naturally, I planned to take them to an onsen for the first time—but I wasn’t prepared for all the questions they had!
Many of the things they’d asked had never even occurred to me growing up in Japan. So I decided to write them up in this article, to help future visitors to Japan—and their hosts!
1. There’s no mixed bathing?
“What?! Why would you even think that?” I asked.
“Well, there are mixed bathing scenes in comics like Ranma 1/2, Detective Conan… I just thought that all onsens were mixed in Japan,” my friend replied.
Japan does have some onsens that allow mixed bathing, but the basic rule is separate baths for men and women. If you’re nervous about being on your own for your first bath, the best thing is to bring a friend of the same sex along!
2. You can’t wear any clothes or swimsuit?
I do understand that this can be daunting for people whose home country does things differently… but in Japanese onsens, everyone bathes naked. (And since you aren’t supposed to dip your little towel into the water, you can’t use that to cover yourself either.)
3. On television, people in onsens are always drinking sake on floating trays or relaxing with a beer—is that really allowed?
Generally speaking, drinking alcohol while actually in the bathing facilities is forbidden. It’s very dangerous—if someone got too intoxicated, they could drown. There might be some onsens that allow it in some way, but I strongly recommend moderation!
4. Can children and babies use onsens? How old do they have to be?
Different onsens have different rules. Some allow infants in the bath, some don’t, and each onsen might draw the line at a different age. Incidentally, if your onsen does allow your children to bathe with you, make sure to keep an eye on them at all times so that they don’t overheat in the water or slip on the floor.
5. If you’re staying at a hotel or ryokan with an onsen, can you just stay in the water all day?
Japanese people love onsens, but even they wouldn’t stay in the water all day! The heat would make you dizzy very quickly.
Some onsen towns have a special pass you can buy that allows you to visit multiple onsens in one day, but most establishments also have rest rooms, massage chairs, and delicious food available. It’s also fun searching for the perfect souvenir to take home!
You might say that visiting an onsen isn’t just about the bathing—there’s also eating the local delicacies and relaxing far away from the hubbub of everyday life. That’s the full onsen experience!
Part 2 will be coming soon—your guide to actually getting into the water! See you then!
Assistance: Chiulan Wei, Chen Xu
Photos: (No. 1) Ikoinomura, Shimane; some rights reserved by GetHiroshima
(No. 2) Some rights reserved by VITIMan Onsenome
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