Japanese culture is unique. You can experience this country’s traditions almost anywhere in the world, whether it’s the food, art or gardens. However, one of the lesser-known Japanese traditions is the Onsen. If you really want to experience Japan, then you should look no further than here!
What is an Onsen?
Onsen translates to “hot spring”. It is a natural hot spring bath, which is a popular part of Japanese culture. It is a common pastime for locals, although it can be an unfamiliar place for newbies. Despite being a bath, the Onsen is not a place for bathing. It is, however, a place for relaxing, meditating and socialising.
Rich in beneficial minerals, these hot springs are also thought to benefit bathers mentally and physically. Descriptions of Onsen have been found in Japanese history books, dating back to 700 A.D. There are even stories of Japanese samurais who used to soak in the Onsen after battles.
Benefits of the Japanese Onsen
The Japanese spend time in the Onsen to heal their body and minds. Take it from the nonagenarians (people who are over 90 years old). They spend time soaking in the Onsen and drinking apple cider vinegar. This simple and relaxing way of life has seen them live to 90+ years old. Benefits of the Onsen are based on Japanese folklore. It is said the minerals can benefit the skin. Onsen water is also believed by some to improve blood circulation and help with stress and sleep..
Although loved by the locals, the Onsen can be intimidating for tourists and first timers. An important part of the Onsen, and Japanese culture in general, is etiquette. There are things you should (and things you shouldn’t!) do when visiting an Onsen. These rules are there to make the experience more enjoyable for you, and the people around you.
For helpful tips on how to enjoy an Onsen (and to save yourself from some embarrassment!), you can read our tips below.
Wear your birthday suit
For some, the most intimidating part of the Onsen experience will be getting nude. It's standard practice however to remove all clothes before getting into the water. In Japan, garments in the Onsen, whether it’s a towel, bikini or speedos, are seen as dirty. It is also polite to cover your nether regions with a towel as you move between the showers and Onsen.
Getting naked isn’t seen as a big deal in the Onsen. You may feel some anxiety at first because it is unfamiliar, however, once you enter the water and realise how normal and accepted it is, it quickly becomes relaxing and even liberating.
In Japan, washing yourself in the bath isn’t seen as hygienic like in Western culture. It is also seen as rude, as is entering the water with dirt or sweat on your body. This can ruin the experience for other visitors and possibly see you dismissed from the Japanese baths. Even at home, the Japanese clean themselves under the shower before getting into the bath, as it is a place to relax rather than bathe.
There are shower areas available for you to scrub yourself before you enter the water. You should do this seated rather than standing, so you don’t splash people next to you. As well as being more hygienic, cleaning yourself also helps make the most out of the experience. As the Onsen is full of natural minerals, making sure your body is squeaky clean helps your skin to absorb these natural compounds more easily.
It is also common to wash yourself after you get out of the Onsen, especially if you plan on getting back into the water, or using the sauna, steam room or Japanese spa.
Stay above the surface
Although tempting, you should avoid dunking your head underneath the water. This is seen as dirty; and can also spread infections and germs from the mouth. The water is also too hot to put your face underneath.
You should also try to keep your hair above the water, even if you have just washed it. Use a hairband or towel to tie it up and stop oils, products and hair from spreading through the water. Not only is this hygienic, but it also saves the staff from having to pull hairballs from the drains.
Tattoos are seen as a taboo in Japan, due to their association with the Yakuza, which is the Japanese mafia. Most Onsen baths don’t allow tattoos at all, however, if the tattoos are small, you may be able to cover these with waterproof plasters or bandages. If your tattoos are bigger or if you have lots, you may need to book a private Onsen, called a ryokan.
In Tokyo, there are Onsen baths made for tourists, which are more lenient when it comes to tattoos and nudity.
Keep the noise down
As Onsen’s are seen as a place to relax and unwind, it is respectful to be quiet when you soak in the water. Many people go to socialise, so you can talk quietly, as long as you don’t disturb other visitors.
You should make the most out of the experience and enjoy it. The Onsen is meant to be relaxing and therapeutic. These rules are simply in place to make the experience more enjoyable for you and others.
After soaking in the water, it is common to relax in hot sand rooms or the bar area. Alcohol is forbidden in the Onsen, however relaxing with a glass of Apple Cider Vinegar, Kirin or sake in a massage chair is a perfect way to unwind after a nice, long soak.
If you’d like to try the Onsen experience, you’re in luck. OSU Apple Cider Vinegar are offering you the chance to relax in an Onsen hot tub, whilst enjoying some delicious Apple Cider Vinegar drinks. Swimwear is optional, there separate nude and bathing sessions available, and you don’t have to travel to Japan! The event takes place in the picturesque Beckenham Place Park Lake in South London, and to top it all off, it’s free. You can sign up to this event here, which takes place on 13-14th August 2021.
For more tips on how you can enjoy Apple Cider Vinegar and experience Japanese heritage, you can see our Daily Rituals.