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When Hope and I traveled to Japan for the first time last month, one of our priorities was to visit a Japanese onsen, or hot spring. While many travelers will search for an onsen near Tokyo, we wanted to experience winter in Japan to the fullest, so we traveled all the way up to Hokkaido, the northernmost of the main islands in Japan, where we could gaze out onto snow covered mountains while bathing in a steaming hot onsen. As a westerner, you might not be accustomed to some of the onsen rules and practices, so we’ve made this first timer’s guide to visiting a Japanese onsen for you so you know exactly what to expect when you get there.
What Is An Onsen?
First things first – what is an onsen? An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, but the term also refers to the bathing facilities surrounding the hot spring. Since Japan is a volcanic country, there are thousands of hot springs scattered throughout the country, but we recommend traveling to the northernmost of the main islands during the winter months for the most authentic onsen experience. After all, there is something so satisfying about bathing in a hot spring while gazing out onto snow-covered peaks. We visited our first Japanese onsen in Noboribetsu, a small onsen town about 120 kilometers, or a 2-hour train ride, from Sapporo, and we had such a positive experience there that we would recommend the same trip to any of our readers looking for an authentic onsen experience. On the other hand, if you find yourself in southern Japan and still want to experience an onsen, make sure you check out this beer onsen and experience some “forest therapy.”
Today, onsens can be found outdoors in naturally occurring environments and indoors in man-made pools that have been filled with naturally occurring sulfur and mineral water from the hot springs. Many onsens resemble high end spas, providing its guests with free high end skin and beauty products to use after they finish bathing.
Where Can I Visit An Onsen?
There are thousands of onsens all across Japan, but I recommend traveling to the northernmost island of Hokkaido for a truly authentic onsen experience. About two hours south of the capital of Hokkaido is a small town called Noboribetsu that is known for its onsens. When you first arrive by train, the town looks like a cute little ski town, but once you walk up to Jigokudani, or “Hell Valley,” you’ll see expansive hot springs that much more closely resemble the landscapes of Iceland than anything you would expect to find in Japan.
The path through Hell Valley is well-paved and short enough for a leisurely stroll, but in the winter months, it can be a quite strenuous trek when the path is fully covered in snow. Dress appropriately, and in particular, wear the right shoes, and you should have no problem making it through Hell Valley.
After hiking through Hell Valley, continue north to the River Oyunuma Natural Footbath, a hot spring creek where you can dip your feet in. There are multiple entrances to the footbath, and you might run into one or two closed entrances due to bad weather, so don’t give up right away if you run into a closed entrance. While you’ll likely only be dipping your feet into the footbath, you’ll get a tiny taste of what submerging your entire body into an onsen will feel like.
The most popular onsen in Noboribetsu is the Noboribetsu Hot Spring, which is located inside a spa resort but open to visitors as well. However, I would recommend booking a stay at Hotel Mahoroba, an onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) located just a short walk from Hell Valley. With nearly 10 different indoor pools and multiple large outdoor pools, you will get your fill of onsens during your stay there. You will also find high end skincare and beauty products in the large dressing area that are free for you to use after you finish bathing, creating a complete spa experience. Hope and I were particularly obsessed with a collagen peeling mask that removed dead skin cells from your face. Additionally, since you are a guest at the hotel, some strict rules that might apply to other onsens will not apply here (more on that later).
Where Should I Stay?
My best recommendation is to stay at an onsen ryokan, so you can enjoy bathing in onsens whenever and for as long as you want. We stayed at Hotel Mahoroba and were completely satisfied with our experience there. Not only does Hotel Mahoroba offer an expansive onsen area, it also offers an expansive breakfast and dinner buffet with both Japanese and western food options and tons of seafood that would cost you an arm and a leg to buy at any other restaurant. Hotel Mahoroba also offers both ryokan-style and western-style hotel rooms, so you have the option of experiencing something new or sticking with what you’re familiar with. Personally, I very much enjoyed staying in a ryokan-style room, and the tatami mats laid out on the floor for us to sleep on were much more comfortable than I had expected.
What Should I Expect?
Almost all public onsens in Japan are separated by gender, as you are required to be completely nude to enter the onsen. If you are traveling with a spouse or significant other and want to experience an onsen together, your best option is to book a hotel room with a private onsen attached. You’ll pay a premium for these rooms, but if you are taking a honeymoon or anniversary trip, it could be a nice option to look into.
You’ll typically be given a large towel and a small towel at your hotel or onsen facility. The large towel is for drying yourself after you bathe and should be left in the dressing area, but you can bring the smaller towel with you into the onsen so that you can cover your private areas while walking around and feel a little less exposed. Some prefer this sort of modesty, but you also won’t be judged for letting it all hang, if that’s what you’re comfortable with. After all, where else in the world can you walk around completely naked in public and not be judged or arrested for doing so?
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Each onsen is different and may choose to enforce its own set of rules, but for the most part, you should try to follow the rules and guidelines listed below in order to not stand out (in a bad way) or offend any local guests who are just trying to enjoy a nice, hot bath.
1. You must be completely naked.
We already talked about this one above, but you must be completely naked to go into an onsen. That means no swimsuits, bikinis, speedos, or any other article of clothing. However, you may bring a small towel with you to cover your private areas and remain (as) modest (as possible) while baring your butt to a bunch of strangers.
2. Rinse off before entering the onsen.
Make sure you rinse off with soap and water before entering the onsen. Bacteria can grow easily in hot springs, so it is important to make every effort to reduce the amount of dirt and bacteria you are bringing with you into the onsen.
3. Do not put your face or hair in the water.
Along those same lines, it is also important to make every effort to ensure that the oils and dirt from your face and hair are not entering into the water and contaminating it for yourself and for other guests. If you have long hair, make sure you tie it up in a bun so that it does not fall into the water. Also, it is completely unacceptable to dunk your head in the water (although – why would you want to, anyway?)
4. Tattoos are not acceptable.
In Japan, tattoos are often associated with the Japanese Yakuza, one of the most dangerous and powerful gangs in the world. Thus, tattoos are frowned upon by society in general, but particularly in onsens. Many onsens will not admit you if you have visible tattoos on your body, or they will require you to cover your tattoo with a bandage so that it is not visible to others. It really just depends on the onsen owner. However, we noticed that hotel onsens are typically more relaxed with this rule, as they want to offer all of their guests an opportunity to enjoy their onsen. Hope and I both have multiple small tattoos on our body, which we left uncovered, and no one at Hotel Mahoroba seemed to care.
5. Do not let your towel fall into the water.
If you do choose to bring a small towel into the onsen with you, make sure it never makes contact with the water, as towels can be seen as dirty, and the goal is to keep the onsen as clean and free from contamination as possible. Most people will simply place their towel on top of their head while bathing in the onsen, which looks pretty silly, but it works.
6. Don’t be too rowdy, but chatting is allowed.
Bathhouses are seen as social places, so don’t worry about chatting with your neighbors while bathing in an onsen. As long as you keep your voice to a normal volume and don’t get too rowdy, there’s no reason to feel like you have to bathe in silence.
7. No food or drinks.
Even though a cold beer or sake sounds like the perfect compliment to a hot spring soak, you are not permitted to bring any food or drinks into public onsens. But don’t let that stop you from getting a cold beer or sake as soon as you’re finished bathing!
8. No photos!
I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of photos on Instagram of a traveler in an onsen against a picturesque background, and you might be itching to get one of those photos yourself. However, most onsens actually do not allow photography. Respect this rule and those around you, and do not put anyone in your onsen at risk of potentially having an unwanted nudie go viral on the internet!
9. Take your time.
It is perfectly acceptable to stay and linger a bit after you’re finished bathing. Many onsens offer pampering stations, and some even offer a sitting area with sake and other drinks. Take your time, and remember to relax!
If any of the above rules sounds like buzzkill to you, my suggestion is to book a hotel room with a private onsen attached, so that you can enjoy a Japanese onsen on your own terms. Once again, you’ll be paying a premium for a private onsen, but it will offer you certain freedoms that a public onsen cannot.
Before we visited our first Japanese onsen in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, we were skeptical that it would live up to the hype. However, after experiencing a Japanese onsen for the first time, we were completely sold! If you want to experience a mix of relaxation and culture during your time in Japan, make sure you build at least a day or two into your itinerary to enjoy a Japanese onsen.
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