Japanese Onsen - a how to for beginners
Updated: Feb 28
One of the things we were most looking forward to doing in Japan was visiting an onsen or two. We LOVED relaxing in the geothermal public pools in Iceland, and had read a lot about the healing, super zen qualities of the hot springs in Japan.
We booked a night in Shibu Onsen up in Yamanouchi, northern Nagano prefecture. Wandering through this beautiful, historic town was like travelling back in time. Old wooden Ryokan guesthouses (some 400 years old!) line narrow paved lanes, and scattered throughout are the town's famous nine public onsen. Bear in mind, these small bath houses are kept locked and only locals and people staying in a local hotel can have a master key.
After checking into your accomodation, you'll be provided with a yukata (cotton kimono) and wooden geta (clog like sandles) to wear around the town. You'll also be given a regular large bath towel, and a tiny one. Now onto the onsen!
What is an onsen?
An onsen is a Japanese bathing facility based around a natural hot spring. As a country with a high level of volcanic activity, Japan has a lot of geothermal springs! Onsen waters are typically mineral rich and are believed to have healing properties, and they're incredibly relaxing. Shibu Onsen's nine bath houses are each said to treat a different ailment, from circulation to skin problems. They say visiting all nine is good luck, so be sure to complete the tour! You can buy a special towel to collect the ink stamps situated outside each onsen.
Is it true that you can't wear a swimming costume?
Yes you have to bathe naked. Don't panic! Men and women are kept separately in different buildings. You'll only be given one master key per hotel room, so if you're a mixed sex couple or group, one of you will need to open their door, then give the key to the other person to let themselves in. The first time you strip off it's weird. We Brits have quite an uptight attitude to public nudity and communal bathing, but I promise you that for the locals it's totally the norm. They're not looking, they're not embarrassed, and once you've got past the initial "OMG I'm so naked" feeling it's actually very liberating!
So what do you do?
Once you walk through the front door, immediately remove your geta. There might be a rack to put them on, or you might leave them by the front door. It varies from onsen to onsen, but there will be signage. You'll see square pigeon hole style shelving for you to leave your key, your yukata and your big towel. Take your little towel into the main onsen room with you.
Next you need to bathe yourself before getting into the water. Some private onsen in hotels might have showers, but for the nine Shibu facilities, you'll need to dip a plastic bowl in the bath itself, and then crouch to one side and repeatedly tip it over yourself to wash. Be careful not to splash your fellow bathers! This will also help your body to acclimatise to the hot water.
Once you are clean, you can get into the bath. Be careful to check the temperature before you get in, some of them are incredibly hot! If it's too hot to get in, you can turn a cold tap on and mix in some cooler water.
Your little towel goes on your head - be careful not to get it in the water, this is a hygiene no no. You will need it when you get out to semi dry yourself so that you don't drip all over the changing room.
What about Tattoos?
Tattoos are somewhat of a taboo in Japan. They're associated with the Yakuza mafia, and unfortunately this means that most onsen ban them all together. You might be able to get around this by covering them with a large plaster if the tattoo is small enough, but every bath house in Shibu Onsen had signs explicitly stating no tattoos. Out of respect to the local community, if you have a large design that is difficult to cover, then I'm afraid you will not be able to use the public onsen, and it would be worth booking a hotel room with its own private bath.
Don't bring valuables with you. We didn't see any gym style lockable lockers in the onsen changing rooms, so any personal belongings you bring will be left in the wooden cubbys. Leave your phone, camera etc in your hotel room, one less thing to worry about when you're unwinding in the hot tub.
Speaking of phones and cameras, don't try and take photos. Goes without saying, people are naked!
Drink plenty of water (not alcohol) as you go around, as soaking in the hot springs is dehydrating.
Keep long hair tied up and your head above water.
Don't stay in too long! 10 to 15 minutes is plenty, and if you feel dizzy, leave the bath.
If in doubt, do as the locals do!
We stayed at Senshinkan Matsuya , a traditional family run guest house with authentic Japanese style rooms: tatami mat floors, futon beds and a low table with a foot heater underneath. We paid for breakfast and dinner as part of our booking, and we would so recommend this as it was one of the highlights of our entire trip. Meals were served sat virtually on the floor at low tables and were incredible multi course feasts of local ingredients. Dinner alone was 16 different dishes!
How do I get to Shibu Onsen?
Take the JR Hokuriku shinkansen from Tokyo to Nagano (about 90 minutes), then follow the signs downstairs to the Nagano-Dentetsu line. You'll need to catch the train to Yudanaka (about 45 minutes) but this isn't covered by the JR pass, so buy a ticket (about 1200 yen) from the machines by the barrier. Shibu Onsen is about a 25 minute walk from Yudanaka station, or some accommodation (like ours) will come and collect you at a prearranged time.
And the Snow Monkeys?
Ah yes, the other reason why Shibu Onsen is famous is its close proximity to Jigokudani Monkey Park, a protected valley where Japanese Macaques bathe in their own outdoor heated pool. Your accomodation might run transport to the park (another perk of staying with Senshinkan Matsuya), otherwise it's about an hour's walk from Shibu Onsen, or public shuttle buses run from Yudanaka station. Bear in mind that once you're dropped at the park entrance, you have a further 25 minute walk along a path through the forest to get to the ticket booth and the monkeys.
After your visit, walk back down to the Roman Museum car park where you can catch a coach all the way back to Nagano train station (buy your tickets from the little kiosk opposite the museum building), where you can hop back onto the bullet train to Tokyo.
The park is open from 8:30 to 17:00 (April to October) and 9:00 to 16:00 (November to March), entry is 800 yen.
Would you dare to bare in an onsen? Let us know below!
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