Onsen, or Hot Spring, and bathing houses have their own set of rules as they are public bathing places. If you are going to Japan and are planning on going to a public bathhouse make sure you know the basic rules, as to where to take off your clothes, when and where to wash, and what to do with your towel. Here are some of the basic bathing etiquette when visiting an onsen in Japan.
There are not many tourists who do not enjoy the experience of onsen and bathhouses. Onsen are great for relaxing, so make sure not to talk too loudly. Just pretend you are in a library.
1. Almost everywhere in Japan there are rules about shoes, be it entering someone’s house, or a fitting room. So make sure you take off yours and put on slippers that are offered somewhere near the entrance (don’t take your clothes off just yet!).
2. When you enter a place where you find a lot of baskets placed around, this is usually where you can undress. You put your clothes, accessories and bath towel in the basket and you are ready to enter the bathing area. (To avoid awkward moments make sure you enter the right area: 女 indicates female and 男 indicated male.)
3. You may take a small towel with you to the bathing area to cover your private zones. Make sure not to put the towel into the water when entering the bath. You can place it on top of your head or on the side of the bath.
4. Make sure to wash before entering the water, as the bath is not meant for washing yourself. You can wash yourself at the basins lining the walls. Take place on the stool, facing the wall with faucet, and use the bucket to wash your body with warm water (and soap if you want, but make sure no soap gets into the bath). Don’t forget to put up your hair if you do not want to wash it beforehand.
5. Then enter the bath. If it is too hot try to enter slowly and try to move as little as possible. Just pretend to be in a sauna.
6. After soaking for a while, you can go back to scrub your body some more as your pores are more open at this point. Old dirt also had the chance to soak loose for a bit and is now easier to remove. Also make sure to tidy your space after using it.
7. When it get too hot you can cool of by using the basins on walls (or, if there is one, enter the icy cold bath) just to get into the hot one again. On your last bath, don’t wash off the minerals of the spring water. Just dry yourself (still in the bathing area), put on your bathrobe, enjoy some (strawberry) milk from the vending machine and get ready for bed.
Beware: Make sure to test the bath before entering them fully. In bigger bathhouses there are hot as well as cold, or even electric baths. The electric ones are well marked with pictures, but you won’t feel it as soon as your feet touch the water. The current comes from a rubber mat on the walls in the bath, the closer you get to the mat the stronger the current gets.
Most baths at ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn’s) offer free soap, razor blades and toothbrushes, but if you enter a bathhouse (such as a sento) you may have to bring your own stuff.
I hope to have helped a bit. Happy bathing!