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The Essential Guide To Onsen Etiquette

A visit to the onsen is an integral part of life in Japan; without it… it wouldn’t be life in Japan. It’s easy to overcomplicate onsen etiquette so we’re going to make it easy for you. The rules can vary, but rest assured the basics remain the same.

Top 7 tips

  1. Bring your birthday suit
  2. Showering before entering
  3. Onsen towels
  4. Tattoos are a little taboo
  5. Tie your hair up
  6. It’s not an après bar
  7. Watch and learn from the locals

Bring your birthday suit

Your clothes go into a little basket or locker provided in the changing room once you enter. Remember to be neat – you are in Japan.

Showering before entering

Keeping the onsen water clean is a big deal so washing thoroughly before you enter is a must. And actually, this can be the best part: sit down (so you don’t splash your neighbour), lather up, wash your hair, condition, exfoliate… all from the comfort of your little plastic stool and personal mirror. Japanese people are serious about cleanliness and you will notice locals doing the same, so indulge a little, it’s like a day spa. Well… a naked one anyway.

Resort onsens will have an intriguing array of shampoos, conditioners, soaps and body lotions on offer. Bring your own or have fun trying out the quirky Japanese ones. Traditional onsens may only have shampoo or body soap, so bring your own potions if you want some extra pampering.

Onsen towels

In the onsen you will rarely see anyone walking around in a towel, but if you want to keep covered up before you hop into the water, you can. You can rent a towel for a small fee, and most onsens will provide you with a ‘modesty towel’ to walk into the onsen with. Just pop it on your head once you are in, and be sure that towelling never touches the water.

Tattoos are a little taboo

Traditionally, people with tattoos weren’t allowed in onsens because of an age-old association to organised crime and the Yakuza. Times are a-changing though and more onsens are making exceptions. Ski towns and other tourist areas do tend to relax the rules, but it’s worth checking ahead of time if you’re looking to visit a more traditional onsen. If you have a small tattoo, you can cover it up with a plaster or body tape. Some onsens even offer them to guests.

Tie your hair up

It’s all about keeping the water clean. Do not dunk your head and do not let your hair fall into the water. For all those men with long hair; it’s man bun time.

It’s not an après bar

Traditionally, onsens do not allow alcohol but as Japan moves with the times this rule is becoming more relaxed. Most people enjoy a little warm sake, a cold beer or an ice cream after the onsen in the chill-out room, and most onsens have vending machines serving alcohol (and soft drinks).

Watch and learn

Just remember, gaijin (foreigners) can inadvertently offend Japanese people in any of a thousand different ways, at any moment. Japanese people won’t confront you about it because they are too polite and it’s seen as disrespectful. But as a traveller, when in doubt, observe how the locals act, and act accordingly.

Not all onsen were created equally, so if you’re feeling ready to give it a go, check out the 3 Types of Onsen in Japanese Ski Towns.

Don’t fancy using a public onsen? Check out this incredible Niseko penthouse with 2 private rooftop onsens.

The team at Mabey Ski have travelled and skied all over the world to find the most unique and authentic ski experiences out there. If you’re looking for an unforgettable ski adventure in Japan why not get a conversation going with one of our adventure designers – we love talking all things Japan.