How To Behave In An Onsen

We’re on the way to Nagano, a mountainous prefecture in central Japan sometimes referred to as the Japanese Alps. In 1998 it had a moment in the international spotlight when it hosted the Winter Olympics games. The prefecture is also famous for the distinctive looking pink-faced snow monkeys, saru, that are known for their custom of washing potatoes before eating them as well as bathing in the natural hot springs. For the locals, the monkeys are a nuisance, plain-and-simple, since they are adept thieves of food. To the Japanese, Nagano is more famous for its natural beauty and profusion of hot springs.

The building that houses a hot spring is called an onsen. They’re a fundamental part of Japanese life and cultural history.

We plan to visit one while in Nagano and it’s something I’m very much looking forward to doing. Since we have a bit of time on the bus, Sachiko schools me on some of the rules and expected behaviours in an onsen. Japan has many elaborate rituals and traditions and I don’t want to commit any faux-pauxs, which as a result mean I have to undergo another famous Japanese ritual: hara kiri.

Onsen Rules:

-No scuba-diving
-No jumping
-No swimming
-No drunkenness

Onsen Procedure:

-Enter changing room, undress (completely) and deposit clothes in a locker
-Take small hand towel and enter the bathing area
-Sit at the shower unit and use soap and hand towel to wash vigorously
-Vigorously!
-Sit into hot tub
-Relax, soak and exhale loud relaxing sighs
-Don’t stay too long, otherwise you’ll get light-headed
-Never, ever dip hand towel in the waters of the bath. Old men get particularly livid at this behaviour. Fold and leave towel on your head if necessary
-Wring towel after leaving bath
-If desired wash again, then return to hot tub, soak in cold water or enter sauna area

More Onsen Rules:

-Don’t ask for tea
-Don’t fart and if you or anyone else does, pretend not to notice
-No spitting in tub
-No drinking of tub waters
-Smile and nod
-No horseplay if you’re over 5 years old
-No boisterous behaviour
-No tattoos, this is to keep the Yakuza away, since they are famed for their enormous tattoos
-Show respect at all times

Women’s Onsen Rules:

-No hair washing in tub
-No hair dying
-No clothes washing in tubs
-No photographs!

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4 Responses to How To Behave In An Onsen

  1. Pingback: Arriving In Nagano | Lemon Squeezy Japanesy

  2. Pingback: Planet of the Snow Monkeys | Lemon Squeezy Japanesy

  3. angrygaijin says:

    Phew! Glad to see I’ve got most of the rules down pat… although I almost got caught scuba diving once! 😛

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