A Guide to Visiting Onsens in Japan

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This is a guest post from Amy Cham, a friend of ours and fellow Japan fan.

Japan is quite literally sitting in one massive hot bath with volcanic water bubbling beneath every surface.  So what do the Japanese do?  Well, jump in of course to beat off the cold winters!  

Wherever you go in Japan you can always find either an onsen (a hot spring water bath that will also most likely have a rotemburo, outdoor bath to you and me), or a sento (public baths but some may not have their waters pumped from a hot spring). 

In Japan visiting an onsen is part of everyday routine and you will often see families arriving for their evening bath.  Trust them and trust me, there is no better way to get away from it all.  I guarantee, once you’ve been onsened you won’t go back!

Onsen Etiquette

Okay, before I continue there is just one little tiny thing you need to know. As at home you would have a bath sans clothes, so you do here in a public bath.  

Yes, in plain English, this means you have to get naked, and bathe, with strangers.  Also, apart from a few rare onsens the baths are often gender separated.

No worries though, the whole point is to relaaaax, just remember to follow these simple rules:

  1. Strip (yes in the communal space, there are no cubicles here!).
  2. Place your clothes in the basket, lock your valuables away in the locker.
  3. Go forth to the onsen area with your toiletries (most places often provide them too).
  4. Go straight to the wash area. Do not, repeat, DO NOT, go straight into a bath without washing first.  The communal baths are for bathing, NOT washing.  So for the benefit of you and everyone else have a wash first!  The wash area is easily identifiable by the row of small showers and tiny stools.
  5. Washed?  Great, now you can sample the delights of onsens and relaaaaaxxxx……

Trust me, it’s not as complicated as it sounds and you’ll soon get the hang of it.  Also yes, you’ll very quickly get over the naked thing once you sink into the silky waters!

Unfortunately, there were far too many onsens and onsen towns (yes onsen towns! see this guide to Kinosaki Onsen) to visit during our whirlwind three-week visit to Japan.

I only hope to encourage readers to get into the onsen spirit.  Here were two of our personal favourites we visited, one on-the-beaten-track, and one off.

Onsenji Yumedono Ryokan, Kawaguchiko

Onsenji, Kawaguchiko. Photo by Amy Cham.

Without a doubt, top of anyone’s itinerary to Japan will be a visit to the majestic Mount Fuji-San. Whilst there are numerous areas to visit Fuji-San there are few on offer to the discerning budget traveler.  

Fear not, the fantastic K’s House Backpacker chain swoops in to save the day with a great hostel right next door to an onsen and ryokan right out of, well any traditional Japanese film you can think of!

Onsenji was our first, and remained our best, experience of onsen life. The grounds were everything suitably zen, and the interiors lush screen doors and tatami mats.  

The onsen had on offer a large steaming hot indoor bath, a cooler jacuzzi, a large sauna, a large outdoor bath, and then the best bit, three traditional outdoor round tin tubs…ahh…the luxury!  

Oh did I mention that whilst we were there it was snowing?  We never knew the joy of snow drifting gently onto our face whilst soaking in a hot spring bath!

Oh and the best thing?  K’s House Mt Fuji has discount vouchers for Onsenji.

If you have the budget, you can also stay at Onsenji Yumedono Ryokan

See this guide to visiting Lake Kawaguchi for the best places to see Mount Fuji.

Kawayu Onsen

Kawayu Onsen, Senninburo

Kawayu Onsen, Senninburo. Photo by Amy Cham.

In Japan there are numerous onsen towns dedicated to the art of onsen hopping.

One unique place to try this is at Kawayu where you can grab yourself a spade and dig yourself your very own onsen along the riverbed.  

In winter it gets even better when the diggers come out to create a free giant public bath, named the ‘Senninburo’, quite literally meaning a bath for 1000 people.  

As this is very much a public affair, and mixed to boot, bathing costumes are highly recommended (unless you are a dyed in the wool older Japanese gentleman, of course!).

Whilst the waters are far too hot to stand for long (a whopping 72°C) you can’t beat the great atmosphere and mountain surroundings, plus the joy of alternating between steamy hot and icy cold waters.

We stayed at Ashita-no-mori a great family run modern ryokan, which was perfectly situated right outside the senninburo. When you tire of the outdoor fun you have the luxury here of having your own private onsen bath.

I cannot mention this place either without heartedly recommending the two-meal option. Firstly you have no choice anyway as there are no other restaurants within walking distance, and secondly the food was quite simply the best we had during our whole three weeks.  

Despite the initial bafflement over the concept of vegetarianism, my partner was then treated to a veggie extravaganza. We personally think they were having us on to worry the ‘gaijins’!

Want anything else to make your diversion to this small town better? Well, you are within easy reach of other onsen towns.  

Yunomine onsen boasts being one of the oldest hot springs in the country and also gives you the treat of being able to boil eggs and sweet potatoes in the hot waters (a scorching 90°C) for lunch. They also have several mineral baths each with its own medicinal purpose.

So what are you waiting for? Strip now and sink in!

About Amy

Firstly, some background.  My partner and I had a crazy notion last year, we decided to pack our jobs in (with a recession we thought it’d be only charitable to give our jobs to those less fortunate!), sell all of our belongings, rent our house out and book a one way flight out of the country.  4 ½ months on we have travelled to China, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Malaysia and recently landed in sunny Australia!

Read about Amy’s other favourite ways to get away from it all on Quiet Thai Islands and in Australian camper vans.

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8 Comments (1 pingbacks)

  1. Thanks for sharing! I love your folks’ blog. Quick question about just doing the onsen at Onsenji Yumedono – do you have to book the bath in advance, or can you just arrive to the onsen? How much would you estimate just the bath is? I’m planning a Japan trip for the summertime, and we are going to climb Mt. Fuji! I’d like to bathe afterward before heading back to Tokyo. On the website, they just have options to reserve rooms in the ryokan, so I am not sure…

    Thank you for your help!

    Reply ↓

    • Fabulous post as we are getting ready to head to Japan’s Summer. Thanks for sharing! I love your folks’ blog. Quick question about just doing the onsen at Onsenji Yumedono – do you have to book the bath in advance, or can you just arrive to the onsen? How much would you estimate just the bath is? I’m planning a Japan trip for the summertime, and we are going to Mt. Fuji! I’d like to bathe afterward before heading back to Tokyo. On the website, they just have options to reserve rooms in the Ryokan, so I am not sure…

      Reply ↓

  2. Growing up in Japan, we used to go to the Onsen’s all the time, specially in the winter! Other than the older ladies trying to wash my hair (I was a kid then) it was always such a nice experience. As an adult, it’s one of the most relaxing things that I can think of.

    Reply ↓

  3. Fab post as we are getting ready to head to Japan next month and this gives us a good taste of what to experience. I am not sure if we can get over the nakedness thing but we’ll see. . . .

    Reply ↓

    • We´ll definitely be checking out Amy´s onsen recommendations when we visit Japan too. I know- the nakedness thing is the only problem. We just have to trust that we´ll get over it!

      Reply ↓

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