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"Ohn-sen"

An onsen is a Japanese bath house. It is, sort of, the Japanese word for bath house, but honestly, a trip to a real onsen will convince you that a bath house is just a bath house, but an onsen is something else unto itself, and not just because many of them are built around a natural hot spring.

As I am myself a gaikokujin, I won't claim to be any sort of authority on onsen, but I can offer up a few points of advice that will help you get through your onsen experience without seriously embarrassing yourself.

Before you go

In Japan, tattooes are still not accepted by polite society, and are (wrongly) thought to only be worn by yakuza and punks. If you have a tattoo (especially if you are male) the onsen attendants may not want to let you in. Try going with friends and you shouldn't have a problem.

If you are at an onsen hotel or resort, you may be expected to go to the onsen wearing a yukata, which is a short, thin summer kimono. It will be provided for you in your room. Close the yukata left-over-right (from the wearer's point of view*), as right-over-left is only worn by dead bodies at funerals).

In the locker room

Onsen are usually gender-segregated, but you are supposed to be naked. There is usually a bin of little towels that you can use to preserve your modesty, mop your sweaty brow, or wring water on your steaming noggin. Grab one and keep it with you until you leave, when you drop it in the wet towel hamper.

Dump your clothes or yukata in a locker. If you have glasses, you can take them with you, but they'll steam up quickly, so you may want to just go blind.

Don't stare.

In the bath

You're supposed to clean yourself before you actually enter the baths. Sit down on one of the little stools in front of the showerheads. Wash, with soap, and wash your hair too. You signal that you are done by filling up the bucket with water and pouring it over your head and down your back. You'll have to do this all again before you go back into the locker room.

Don't get offended if many of the old Japanese people soaking in the baths decide to leave after you show up. Sadly, some Japanese people, especially older ones, feel uncomfortable around foreigners. There's not much you can do about this.

Now relax, and let the onsen goodness just wash over you.


*Thanks gn0sis!

A special version of Onsen are called Rotemburo, literally translated as "open air bath". They can often be found near nice natural settings in Japan (hills, forests, ocean etc.) and at least some of their bath tubs are open air (with a roof to protect against rain and snow).

Rotemburo are a great experience, especially during winter. Imagine that you soak your body in steamy hot spring water, a wet towel on your head as well as some hot sake in your stomach. The air around you is chilling cold and with the dim light coming from Japanese lanterns, the steam from the water is visible against the sky. You look above you and you see the stars and maybe the moon. Next to the bath tub some white, glowing snow. Nearby you can hear the ocean. It's gorgeous.

Another specialty of Onsen in Japan is that most of them belong to rather sophisticated Japanese inns (Ryokan), which offer typical tatami rooms and delicious Japanese meals. Soaking, drinking, eating, sleeping -- after three days, you will feel completely newborn.

The only drawback is that most Onsen and Rotemburo these days are strictly divided into tubs for male and female (although in the past, bath houses in Japan used to be mixed). For couples and mixed groups of friends, this is only half the fun.

If you look for mixed bath houses, ask for Konyoku Onsen or Konyoku Rotemburo. Some still exist. My favorite one is near the beach of Izu Hanto (Izu Peninsula).

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