For travellers, a first foray into public nudity isn’t always easy. You’re far from home, and what feels like only slightly less farther from the clothes that typically cover your body in a public setting. Onsens, the Japanese-style communal hot spring baths, require travellers and locals alike to bare it all. Be brave — the experience is worth it. After a day of sightseeing, there’s nothing like soaking your tired body in a spring-fed pool.
Knowing what to expect ahead of time helps to make a trip to the onsen way more relaxing — which is the whole point of visiting. Onsen etiquette is pretty specific but there’s almost always someone on hand to give you a quick crash course on what to do (and what not to do). In the onsen town of Kinosaki there are public onsens, private onsens, and, like at the serene Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei, onsens inside large hotels and small ryokans (traditional Japanese inns). Here’s a quick guide to mastering them all:
Your yukata and you
Japan is a country with no small amount of respect for history and tradition. To experience some of it, book a night at a ryokan, some of which have stood on the same spot and been run by the same families for generations. In certain areas of the country, ryokans will often have their own onsen which makes easing into the bathing experience convenient and simple. Your yukata (a casual cotton robe and belt) will be waiting for you in your room. It’s expected (though not required) that guests wear a yukata for the length of their stay — even to dinner. (This is a culture that knows how to relax.) At Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei we were even invited to go for an evening walk through the town in our yukatas, visiting public onsens along the way.
Yukata sizes are measured by height. Ask for a large if you’re tall or a small if you’re shorter. Cross the left side of your yukata over the right, loop the belt around your waist twice, tie it in the front, and that’s it — you’re ready to onsen. In colder weather, leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt can be layered underneath and a hip-length jacket called a haori is provided to wear over the yukata.
So fresh and so clean!
Sharing a big bath with a bunch of strangers means you need to go in clean. Outside of the onsen bath you’ll find shower facilities typically equipped with soap, shampoo, and conditioner. There will be a stool to sit on and a bucket you can fill and use to rinse yourself with. There’s also a shower attachment that Western travellers might be more familiar with. However you do it, just be sure to scrub yourself thoroughly before you hop in the bath.
What to do with that tiny towel
Onsens will provide you with a small hand towel to take into the bath with you. Walking in, the towel will provide a modicum of modesty — you can use it to cover the front of your body (or some of it, anyway). Once you’re in the bath, leave the towel on the edge nearby or fold or wrap it around your head. Afterwards, use it to dry off — not every onsen facility will have larger towels to use, especially the public ones.
Tattoos: ask first, avoid getting kicked out later
Because of the connection between tattooing and the Yakuza (Japanese organized crime rings) tattoos are not allowed in many onsens. Visitors who don’t follow this rule can be asked to leave (which is super awkward). With both the 2020 Olympic Games coming to Tokyo and the Rugby World Cup landing in Japan this fall, rules around tattoos in onsens are relaxing somewhat. In Kinosaki, the public onsens in town permit tattoos while at Nishimuraya Hotel Shogetsutei, the large in-hotel onsen did not allow them but the three private onsens (which you can rent for an hour at a time) were perfect for people with body art and for those who aren’t ready to get naked with a group of strangers. They’re also a great space for couples, families, or groups of friends to hang out together away from the crowds.
Hungry? You will be
There’s something about a steamy soak that truly sparks the appetite. If you’re staying at a ryokan, you’re in luck. Japanese inns are known for serving delicious multi-course meals called kaiseki. At Nishimuraya Honkan we were treated to a post-bath seasonal meal of sashimi, Japanese pickles, grilled fish, crab legs, fresh soba noodles, and more. Dinner was served in our room where we sat at a low table on soft tatami mat floors sipping sake and getting very full. It’s the decadent kaiseki meal makes the onsen experience complete.