Onsen is the Japanese word for hot spring but also refers to the baths themselves or the resort hotel or inn (ryokan) that has the facilities of spring fed hot baths. The most traditional type of onsen is associated with a Japanese inn, ryokan in Japanese, offers a selection of hot baths which may be in the open or under cover of a roof (rotenburo), they will offer mixed bathing (konyoku) but will also most likely have a women only bath and perhaps a men only bath too. A Japanese ryokan will offer at least an evening meal as well as breakfast. These will be elaborate presentations of traditional and seasonal dishes from the locality. Many privately run onsen would also offer people who are not guests the use of the facilities during the day for a reasonable fee.
For us westerners there are some important things to know about onsen and public or private bath (hot tub) etiquette. Whether it be an onsen, bath house or private Japanese hot tub style bath (in other words any bath or pool where the water is used by others) it is important to realise that one does not wash in the water. Stools and taps or troughs of water will be available with buckets or dippers, soap will probably be available too. One sits on the stool, washes thoroughly and rinses off every trace of soap before entering the water for a relaxing and/or therapeutic soak. Even if you have just washed and come from one pool to another it is normal to at least make a display of rinsing off before entering the new pool. Apart from any other consideration it gets you accustomed to the hot water before entering. It is one of the major concerns of Japanese at bathing establishments that westerners will not know the rules of proper behaviour.
It is worth while mentioning that tattoos may not be acceptable at some onsens. In Japan tattoos are perceived as being worn by people with Yakuza (Japanese mafia) associations. Foreigners, even women, with small tattoos may also find themselves barred under this rule.
In many onsen establishments you will be directed to the first bath, usually segregated male and female, where you can thoroughly wash and take a soak in a hot bath before entering the rotenburo. In the most traditional onsens you may not wear a swimming costume or wrap yourself in a towel whilst in the water. You will be provided with a small towel that you can use as a wash cloth and to protect your modesty between the washing area and the pool. This towel is usually left beside the pool or some women place it on top of their heads. The towel would be too small for most women to “cover up” with so a special lightweight cotton frock can be worn between the washing area and the pool but is removed on entering the water. These frocks may be on sale at the onsen. If you are squeamish about public nudity or mixed nude bathing you should check the rules of the onsen before going. I have noted that whilst both sexes will sit in the bath happily nude the men tend to sit to one side and the women to the other. I am sure that foreign couples could sit together without any comment but I am sure that any contact would be seen as inappropriate as would any open flaunting of nudity. The japanese always hold the towel in front of themselves between the change area, the washing area and the pool.
If you have any doubts about proper behaviour watch what the Japanese do and do as they do.
A valuable source of information is http://www.secret-japan.com/onsen/ In that site you can find a lot of information on over 100 onsens.
To read about our experience click here.