One of Japan’s most enjoyable, but at first intimidating, traditions is that of the onsen (温泉). A literal public naked bath, often times outdoors, is hailed for its mystifying rejuvenating and cleansing properties. I know what you’re thinking, “no way am I bathing in the same water, naked, with a handful of random people!” Hold your horses, let’s see if you’re even allowed in first. Chances are if you have a tattoo anywhere on your body you will not even be allowed to enter an onsen. This comes from the Japanese stigma surrounding tattoos because of their affiliation with organized crime. Even foreigners who would obviously have no connection with Japanese crime are still barred from entry.
Onsens follow a traditional set of rules that can be confusing to follow. Assuming you make it through the front door you are then divided by gender and sectioned off to respective parts of the bath house. Some onsens are very lavish, being established near a ryokan (旅館) or Japanese inn. Here, one swaps their clothes in exchange for a kimono (着物) or yukata (浴衣), a light summer casual kimono, while on the premises. Other styles of onsens are less formal and are entered by buying a ticket from a vending machine and showing the receptionist.
Some onsens are completely private and serene, and others are public and outdoors. Yet, all follow the same etiquette for preparing for one’s bath.
First, one must strip completely naked usually within a locker room and store personal belongings in cubbies.
Second, before entering the actual hot spring, one must wash themselves completely by using the various seated showers surrounding the tubs. This is to keep the actual hot spring waters as clean as possible from outside pollutants and to rid oneself of impurities. It is seen as a sign of respect to those already bathing within the spring. The showering is usually done sitting down on a stool and will offer soap, shampoo, and conditioner. This part doesn’t usually take more than a minute.
Finally, one enters the bath. Be sure to check if some of the springs have ph levels as there is usually a designated order for bathing but sometimes it doesn’t matter. A towel is then usually then placed on one’s head for further relaxation. You can spend as short or as long as you need within the onsen and some are even open 24 hours. Be sure to stay quiet to not disturb other onsen guests and enjoy the soothing water and surrounding landscape if outside.