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Unwind and Relax: Essential Tips for Going to a Hot Springs in Japan

Hot springs (or onsen ♨️) is a huge part of Japan, and naturally, many tourists would absolutely want to experience this sie of Japan for themselves when they're traveling. Hot springs are made up of natural mineral springs, different from their bathhouse counterparts - like a "sento" or a "spa". There are actually a number of "onsen" in bigger cities that are more like a "spa" or what we call a "super-sento", which are big facilities with different bath options, saunas, other beauty treatments, relaxation, and even food options.

Honestly, neither is "better" than the other, though some might argue otherwise. If going to onsen to natural minerals and other properties is important to you, and you believe in its healing properties, then a natural onsen is better. If you're with family and friends, and you want a place to do various activities together, then a spa or a super-sento may be the best route to go.

I personally love both types, but I do prefer the natural onsen as there are some that are situated in very scenic areas. And more natural onsen place are offering more variety in their baths and things to do as well, so it's important to do some research if this is an important aspect of your trip.

Today, as a hot spring fanatic of sorts, I just want to impart some of my wisdom to some of you who may not be so familiar with onsen. And give you a bit of perspective on what to expect going into one:

Yes, you will need to be naked!

Most onsens and super-sentos will require you to get FULLY naked before going into your gender-split baths. So yeah, no bathing suits. Sorry.

There are a few places like Hakone's YUNESSUN that allows bathers to go with swimsuits. But they are very far and few. If you're uncomfortable getting nekky, then I would look into these options before traveling to Japan.

Some mixed-gendered onsen also provides cover up, so if you're adventurous you can check out my other blog on mixed onsens.

And if you are unsure if you need to get naked, assume all of them will require you to. If there's a public bath, then it's a nekky bath! I think this is the biggest mistake I see people make at Dogo Onsen.

This is a historical building, very unassuming (I mean it does have onsen in the name...) and honestly? Looks more like a museum than a bath. But there is a public bath inside!! I personally saw a few Chinese and Taiwanese tourists purchase tickets, go inside and find out it's a bathhouse. And not wanting to waste money, they of course enter into the change room and then the baths, fully clothed. Thinking that they can just sit on the edge and dip their feet in. NUH UH! If you're going in, you go in naked!! Needless to say, some Japanese patrons called the staff and the tourists had to be told off to be uncloth... but yeah.

Lockers, Change Rooms & Showers

Starting from when you enter, your personal items can mostly be secured safely. You will need to take off your shoes upon entry, and most places will have a shoe locker with an individual key.

Once you locked up, you will pay for your bath. Some places may opt to take your shoe locker key, and provide you with a change room locker key, like a coat check - but for your shoes. Find your number in your respective gendered change room and lock up your belongings and clothes. They will also have a seperated (and sometimes coin-operated deposit) locker on the side for valuables if you wish to have them seperated. Some change room lockers may also need a coin as deposit, and you can probably ask the staff to get coins if you need it!

Some change rooms may not have lockers, and simply a basket for you to put your clothes in. But those places are usually for day trippers in the countryside (the assumption is that you will have a car so belongings won't be an issue) or for hotel-stay baths.

Baskets in the change rooms
Baskets in the change rooms

It is rare to have individual change rooms. Stripping naked at your locker is sort of part of the experience and I guess if you're going to be in a bath naked with others, take off clothes in front of others is simply the "appetizer" of the whole experience.

Are there individual showers? No, very rarely. Some places may have a wall parititioning off each little shower booth - but do not expect any real privacy. You will be showering with others of the same gender next to the baths. However, if the bath you are going to is not too busy, most people will try not to insert themselves next to someone and I think there is effort at least on the women's side to try to keep some distance from others whenever possible. Women also don't seem to like entering bath pools with too many people unless necessary, so it's also rare you'll ever be shoulder to shoulder with someone in a bath.

Amenities Onsens Have

Most if not all onsens have: body soap, shampoo and hair dryers.

95% of the places will also have conditioner. A few places I have been to didn't, but hair conditioner is usually part of the essentials list.

Water dispensers are also very common in change rooms and outside of the change for hydration. Some may opt to provide green tea, or flavoured water but they're usually in more traditional or upscale places.

Most onsens that have accommodations available for staying guests will have skincare products available. Some are just generic, local products to promote the sale of local goods. Others are brands like DHC or Shiseido. This also means that cotton pads, cotton swabs and combs are usually available too at these places.

Towels... a small neck towel will often be provided, but some places might make you pay for one for a small fee. Some may be for rental only. Big body towels are not always available for day trippers, but always provided if you stay overnight. If you are traveling from overseas and don't have a small neck towel, you can bring a big towel along BUT PLEASE DON'T BRING YOUR OVERSEAS TOWELS INTO THE BATH. Keep it in the locker room! Try to shake yourself off and dry as much as you can by standing around before you enter back into the locker room. No one wants to step on the water you track into the change room.

My suggestion is to get a small neck towel somewhere if you can. Most souvenir shops sell some with really nice designs and may be worth a souvenir investment.

Hair ties and shower caps are a hit or miss. Some will have at least shower caps, but hair ties are becoming slightly rarer these days. I highly recommend bring along some hair ties if you or your friend has long hair! You WILL and MUST tie up your hair in the bath so it doesn't touch the water, and you may be in a bit of a pickle if you can't tie it up (and trust me I have been in this situation a lot)!

...Hair Tie Alternatives?

Fret not, there are ways to overcome no hair ties.

The first would be to use your small towel which you need to bring with you to the baths. These small towels shouldn't be used in the bath, and most people fold them up to put to the side or on their heads anyway, so if you can wrap it around your head and tuck your hair inside, then this is the way!

No good? Well, remember those locker room keys?

Most if not all of the locker keys have a band that is elastic, like such:

You can easily use the band to tie your hair!

Unfortunately not all have lockers though, but then it's possible that the onsen may provide shower caps. If these are not available, then... welll... I guess you can try to hold up your hair. Personally I've never been in a situation that none of these options become unavailable to me. But do let me know if there's ever an onsen where you forgot your hair tie and had no alternatives! I'd love to know myself.

Showering & Bathing

You are free to bring your own shower products with you, but please don't take them around with you when you're bathing. Either keep the shower products at the shower booth if it's not too crowded (most people know not to use the booth as it tells them it's occupied, but please only do this if it's not crowded!!), or leave it in the locker room after use (you can use your small towel to dry off, head back out and just rinse yourself quickly before hopping into a bath).

Some places may have a rack or a shelf by the entrance of the bath for this purpose, but most do not.

And please do 100% shower. This is not an option.

Those of you wear glasses - of course you can wear them, but don't bring them into the sauna! Some saunas may actually have a place for you to bring your glasses, but most don't. I would recommend leaving your glasses in the locker room, at least until after you've showered.

Take ONLY your small neck towel with you. Do not bring your big bath towel. You are suppose to semi-dry yourself with a small towel before going back inside to fully dry. And yes actually, those small towels are very good at absorbing water even when wet, so don't worry. Wring it out when necessary by the showers.

You can also use your small towel as a back scrub. They're nifty!

And like I said before, leave towels out of the bath!

Very small children can accompany parents of either gender, so if you're a mom with very young male children, you can take them with you into the bath. I think fathers taking female children are much rarer, maybe even none at all... but I wonder. If you know or have experience, let me know!

Try to keep a distance and give other bathers you don't know space where possible. Even if you would like to try to engage strangers in random conversation, you don't need to do this sitting too close to them.

Ladies, if you are on your period, stay out of the baths - even with a tampon on.

Just be wary of others and don't do something you won't do if you were to shower at a friend's place.

When you're done...

If you borrowed any towels, leave the towel bin. Don't forget any belongings!

You can relax outside in the waiting area for any friends, partners and family members. So you don't need to sit around the change room! I recommend also partaking in a bottle of chilled milk from the vending machines there. A great way to hydrate for those not lactose intolerant.

Take your locker key back to the reception when you're all done, get your shoe locker key and out you go!

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