I'm not exaggerating when I say that taking a bath at traditional onsen (hot spring) might just be the highlight of your Japanese vacation. The relaxing water, rising steam, and laid back environment come together perfectly to create an ideal experience. And if you're lucky enough to visit an onsen with an outdoor rotenburo bath, you're in for a real treat! (Check out this blog I wrote about Kurama onsen, Kyoto's best open air hot spring.)
However, onsen is an incredibly foreign experience for overseas visitors, and I meet countless guests who are simply too shy or too nervous to take a dip. Yeah, everyone's naked, and there are a lot of rules, but trust me... it's worth it!
This handy visual guide was put together by the Ministry of Tourism in Hokkaido, up in the frozen north where they take their onsen very seriously. You'll learn everything you need to know to prepare yourself to take the plunge. Click on each section to zoom in.
Don't worry about following those steps precisely. The main points are cleaning your body at the showers before entering the bath, and easing yourself into the water to get used to the hot temperatures. Do what feels comfortable for you, and look around watch how others are enjoying themselves as well.
Bathing in various onsen waters treats you to some very interesting sensations. Some waters are rich in minerals that make your skin feel slippery, or have high levels of natural mud that cause the water to be red and murky. I've even experienced one that had naturally radioactive water that got my skin tingling! You can't always feel the minerals, but they're in there and working wonders on your body and skin. After all, the Japanese have the longest lifespan in the world... maybe onsen is one reason why?
These are pretty solid tips that you should think about before and after taking a bath. Main points are not to put your towel in the bath itself, and dry yourself off a bit before stepping out into the locker room. Those are the ones that could send some unwanted attention and sharp glances your way if you don't follow them.
So don't stress out about onsen! It's all about enjoying it in your own way while following some simple guidelines. Just embrace it, get naked, and do what others are doing. You won't regret it!
If you'd like to experience onsen at Kyoto's best outdoor hot spring with a guide from KyoTours who can help you make the most of your visit, a trip to Kurama onsen on the edge of the city is doable as part of a custom tour.