If you have an upcoming trip to Japan booked and want to experience one of the most popular and memorable past times, try a local onsen. An onsen is a hot spring bath; Japan has more than its fair share of volcanic activity, creating geothermally heated water that rises to the surface and is very hot. Every onsen must use water that contains at least of 19 total naturally occurring chemical elements and has to be at minimum 25 degrees Celsius when it bubbles out of the ground. An onsen is typically indoors; a rotenburo is the same idea, but held outdoors. You may hear of a sento as well, but these are public bathhouses which are supplied by heated water that aren’t necessarily spring water with the conditions as outlined by on onsen. Whichever you choose to visit, the rules of etiquette are the same and it helps to know what they are before you step foot in the door.
Onsen maintain traditional floors (referred to as tatami) in their change rooms and it’s expected that you will remove your shoes before stepping on them. Ensure that you get the right change room; typically women’s have red curtains and men’s have blue curtains. You might also want to look at and memorize the Japanese word for men and women, just to be sure. Note before you go that most onsen are nude only. Although most separate the sexes, the only thing you will bring with you into the onsen is a washcloth and a smile. There are lockers provided for clothes and belongings while you’re enjoying the water.
You’re expected to enter the onsen already clean and showered. You’ll either be provided full shower facilities or at the very least, a stool and a bucket of water. There is no soap used within the onsen. The washcloth that you’re provided shouldn’t touch the water; this is considered unclean. You’ll see many participants wear their washcloths on their heads to keep it out of the way. It is also considered unclean to let your hair hang into the water, so bring an elastic or wrap your hair in a towel before hitting the water. Rules can differ slightly from onsen to onsen, so it’s best to follow posted rules or even emulate what others around you are doing.
For a short period of time foreigners weren’t allowed within onsen walls after several negative incidents involving drunken foreign sailors. This caused public outcry especially from foreign residents, but the Japanese in general supported the onsen’s rights to enforce the policies that maintained expected standards and behaviours. Another highly sensitive topic that is still hotly debated arises from the refusal of some onsen to admit people with visible tattoos.
A survey conducted last year discovered that about half of operating onsen continue to refuse admittance to those who sport tattoos, while other onsen either refuse admittance on a case by case basis or have dropped the rule altogether. The general consensus is that visitors with tattoos should take note which baths refuse or allow entry, and otherwise follow all the posted rules and regulations.
So what’s the big deal? In other countries, tattoos are recognized as a way for a person to commemorate an event or person, a beloved pet or simply a way to decorate the body. There are social stigmas, of course, even now, but people from all walks of life at every age get tattoos, so it’s hard in the face of such diversity to make assumptions about “people with tattoos.” In Japan, on the other hand, tattoos (or Irezumi as its known) are still seen as something that a person would get if they’re associated with illegal activity or a gang. Historically in Japan, tattoos were a way to decorate the body and be fashionable much in the way they’re worn today. During the same time period, tattoos were simultaneously a way that criminals were punished; a tattoo might represent the crime that they committed. Once Irezumi was outlawed in later periods of history, it became a way for criminals or gangs to symbolize their power. You can see then, why the idea of being tattooed is also seen as something negative or associated with illegal activity. Onsen owners became rightfully concerned that if tattooed guests were allowed within the bath walls, their other customers may stop coming and find other locations to frequent.
One way in which guests with tattoos can get around the rule is to purchase a tattoo cover (similar to a waterproof band aid); effectively hiding the tattoo. Some resorts or onsen even provide these for their guests on site.