Onsens in Japan date back thousands of years. Thousands of these hot springs can be found throughout the country, but the cultural barriers to entry can seem high to outsiders. Where do you go? What do you do? Do you really have to get naked around a bunch of strangers?
Never fear! I have been to several onsens throughout the country, and in this article I’ll show you the do’s and don’ts of the onsen experience. For this article, I use the Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo. Not only is it a great onsen, it is easy to get to from any number of local train stations and hotels.
And should you decide to visit the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Voyagin can help you out with a discount!
A Note on Tattoos
Japanese people have an aversion to body art due to its long association with criminal elements. Some onsens outside of Tokyo allow them, and others will allow you to enter if you have some way of covering them up (usually with a flesh-toned bandage).
The Oodeo Onsen Monogatari does not allow tattoos at all. Yes, they are aware that not everyone who has a tattoo is a criminal. Your tattoos may very well be innocuous (your kid’s names, etc) or have some deep, personal meaning. But sorry, you will not be admitted. Please do not be the ugly foreigner who shows up and makes a scene by arguing with the staff.
NOTE: I have heard that some people have gotten around this rule by covering up with a t-shirt or leggings, but you will still not be able to get into the baths. And if you can’t go to the baths, why bother going at all? Also, I don’t know what happens to you if you get caught, but I’m sure it will cause quite a bit of embarrassment.
Onsen trips can be expensive. The Oedo Onsen Monogatari has a reasonable price of entry (2500-2900 yen per adult, 1000 yen for children ages 4-12, under 4 is free), which includes the bath, the yukata robe (more on that below), towels, and facility usage. But that’s not all–there are plenty of good things to eat and drink, games for the kids to play, and wonderfully relaxing massages.
You do not carry money at Oedo Onsen Monogatari–they have a computerized system that keeps track of your purchases via a barcoded bracelet that you will receive once you go inside. Therein lies the danger. Since money isn’t changing hands, you may have no idea how much you have spent until you get to the checkout counter. For your estimation purposes, my last trip with my wife and son cost 12,000 yen (baths, food and drink, etc). Make sure you have enough to cover your trip!
Other Things To Consider
Medical conditions and pregnancy. If you have high blood pressure, are pregnant, or are otherwise susceptible to high temperatures, complications could arise from using the baths. Please check with your doctor before you leave home if you are thinking of going to an onsen.
Bring a change of clothes. You will want clean underwear after you leave the baths, and clean clothes to change back into once you leave the onsen.
Know your height in centimeters, so you can get an appropriately-sized yukata (below).
The Oedo Onsen Monogatari Experience
Once you enter the onsen, you have to take off your shoes and place them in one of the lockers to the left of the entrance. You can wear socks if you want, but make sure they are clean and not-holey ones. Keep the key, so you can get your shoes back at the end of your visit.
Next, you will check in at the service desk. Here you will give your credit card number and you will receive a barcoded bracelet that doubles as locker key and wallet. The barcode bracelet is used to pay for food, drinks, and other extras inside the onsen area.
The third step is to get a yukata from the counter. A yukata is a thin robe, worn with a sash, which you will wear for the duration of your trip to the onsen. As it is with the case of tattoos, this is not negotiable–this is what is worn inside the onsen area. Go to the counter and choose your size (in centimeters), a pattern, and one of the sashes. Oh, and make sure you get one that is the correct size. Too long and you are wearing a wedding gown that trails everywhere. Too small, and everyone will wonder where the flood is.
Wearing Your Yukata
At Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are separate changing rooms for men (blue curtain) and women (red curtain). The changing room is essentially a locker room. Find the locker that matches your key, and you will be ready to change into your yukata.
Wearing a yukata is just like wearing a bathrobe. When you put it on, you will cross the left side of the robe over the right. Ladies have additional strings on the inside of their yukata in order to prevent “wardrobe malfunctions.”
Why is it left over right? Well, the explanation I got was that swordsmen drew their katana with their right hand from their left hip, and having your yukata on right-over-left could possibly entangle your sword hand, which would likely get you killed.
“But I don’t have a sword,” I said. “Also, I’m left-handed. If I did get into a quick-draw-and-slash contest, I would be just as screwed.”
“Shut up and put it on right,” was my wife’s answer.
There is another reason. Wearing the yukata right-over-left is reserved for the dead at their funeral. No one will actually think that you are dead, but it is a social faux pas. On the other hand, you now know how to identify Japanese zombies should the dead rise during your vacation. If you forget which side goes over which, there are plenty of signs in the changing area to remind you.
Traditionally, people wore nothing at all under their yukata, but modernity has allowed for some modifications. First, you will wear underwear beneath your robe. Ladies, a bra is also appropriate. If you like, you can also wear a t-shirt and socks with your yukata. If you intend to go to the baths immediately, put on your fresh gear. You don’t want to take a bath only to put your dirty underwear back on.
Also, there is a small pocket on the inside to keep your cell phone or camera. You can take a camera inside the onsen, just be mindful of where you are taking pictures. In the common areas, it’s ok, but (for obvious reasons) no pictures are allowed in the locker rooms or bath areas.
To the Baths!
First, please refrain from taking a bath when you are dead drunk (see sign).
Thank you for not embarrassing the rest of the visitors. Now lets get to it.
Once you leave the locker room, you enter the common area, where all of the food booths, games, etc are located. Oedo Onsen Monogatari is built like a miniature hot springs town–in other onsens, all of these food stands, bars, games, etc. aren’t this close together. To get to the baths, go left and follow the signs.
Older onsens were mixed-sex bathing, but those have fallen out of fashion. Oedo Onsen Monogatari splits the baths into men’s and women’s sides. For this portion, please realize that I am a guy, so I only know what’s in the men’s baths. (My wife assures me that it is essentially the same over on their side, but you never know…)
After entering the bath area, you will first enter another locker room. Right inside the door you will receive two towels–one small, one large. With these, choose a locker and strip down. Everything goes into this locker–your yukata, underwear, socks, cell phone, and even your bar code bracelet. You cannot wear any clothing at all in the onsen–no shorts, no swim trunks, whatever. Naked as the day you were born, as the saying goes. The locker has a key on a plastic band. This goes around your wrist, and is the only exception to the “total nudity” rule.
The larger towel you got at the entrance also goes into the locker, because it is for drying yourself off after you get out of the bath. The smaller one (a washcloth, for Americans) is what you take into the onsen with you. If you are modest, you can use it to block the view of your junk, which no one cares about anyway. If you want to go like a native, you’ll use it to wash your face and dry your sweat in the baths. Please do not dip this cloth into the bath water–it is considered unsanitary to do so. While in the water, you can put it to the side or fold it up and put it on your head, just like in the cartoons.
Once Inside the Baths…
The first thing you do in the actual bath section is to take a shower. It may sound odd, but the purpose of the onsen is to relax, not bathe. You are going to soak here, and hopefully not in a bath of oily scum left by previous bathers. Inside the Oedo Onsen Monogatari, there are two options. Once you enter, there is a traditional “bowl bath”, in which you simply douse yourself in water. If you look behind you, there is a Western-style shower. Either way works.
If you are especially grimy, please use one of the shower stations that are on the left side of the indoor section of the baths. The stations all come with a stool, body soap, shampoo, conditioner, and a bowl and shower head combo. Get your pretty man on! Just make sure you get all of the soap off of your body before going to the baths. That’s another faux pas to avoid.
After that, there are several pools to choose from. They vary in temperature, as per a nearby thermometer. There are baths, and there is even is a whirlpool. Not bad, right? Be aware of the temperature and don’t force yourself to get into a bath if it is too hot.
And once you are there, relax. Nice, isn’t it? Some people bathe alone, and others gather in groups and chit-chat. If come by yourself, you will probably stay that way. One time during one of my earlier trips, some guy sat next to me to practice his naked English, which was rather awkward. But that was just that one time, out of dozens of trips.
Nude in the Great Outdoors
After your initial stride into the waters of a Broader Mindset, see if you can go outside. Yes, there are bathing pools outside, along with benches and other spots where you can lie down and flap about in the breeze. The high wall surrounding the area protects your privacy, and will protect the general public from your bad jokes (Q. Why did the bald man go outside at the onsen? A. He wanted to feel the wind in his hair). You can soak in the outside pool or take a nap if you like. Beware of sunburn on your sensitive bits.
Once you are done soaking, take another shower at one of the shower stations before exiting the bath area. You’ll leave the onsen feeling fresh, relaxed, and very clean. Time to see what else is here!
The Foot Baths
The foot baths at Oedo Onsen Monogatari are outside, in the Japanese gardens. Here, there is a long, winding walking pool. If you are feeling bold, hike up your yukata and wade right in!
I have to admit, this is not my favorite thing to do. The water is nice, but the walking path (both in the water and on the dry parts of the path) are studded with rocks. The rocks are supposed to “massage” your soles, for increased blood circulation or some other ancient Eastern medicine reason. I think that the larger rocks are ok for this, but walking on the smaller rocks is like finding missing Lego while going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Painful! Overall, I’d rather just sit on one of the benches that line either side of the pool and dangle my feet in the water.
There is another peculiar pool in this area, full of tiny fish. For a fee, you can soak your feet in this pool, and the fish will eat the dead skin off of whatever they can reach. The very idea sorta grosses me out, but some people seem to like it.
The Rest of Your Onsen Experience
The Oedo Onsen Monogatari is a great place to go for your first onsen experience. It is foreigner-friendly and easy to get around. All the signs are duplicated in English, and most of the staff can help you in areas related to their expertise.
There are lots of things to eat and drink. Just about every Japanese dish is represented here at one food stand or another, along with desserts (I liked the strawberry ice topped with condensed milk). We went with a group and had lunch with them (pictured), but you don’t have to do that. Just find what you like, point at the menu, and use your barcode bracelet to pay. Easy!
And there are other things to do. Near the bathing area is the spa, where you can get everything from a massage to skin exfoliation to a reflexology treatment. There are plenty of carnival-style games for the kids (and me, because I like throwing ninja stars). There is even a reclining chair area for you to take a nap, in case all of that relaxing wears you out.
And don’t forget to go to the gift shop before you leave!
Going to an onsen is one of those “very Japanese” things to do, and will make for a great story when you return home. I used the Oedo Onsen Monogatari as a template for onsen trips–if you go somewhere else, the particulars may vary, but probably not by much. Also, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is inside Tokyo and is easy to get to through any number of methods (see below). If you are staying at a hotel, they can likely arrange a trip for you. Highly recommended!
Still not sure if you want to go to Oedo Onsen Monogatari? Maybe Voyagin’s discount can help you decide!
Oedo Onsen Monogatari Location Information
Access: There are multiple ways to get to Oedo Onsen Monogatari, best explained at http://daiba.ooedoonsen.jp/en/#access
“Why Go?”: For a relaxing soak, good food, and an unforgettable experience!
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