How to Take an Onsen Bath in Japan

The communal baths overlooking the waterfalls

The communal baths overlooking the waterfalls

[14th in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan]

I’m always a little nervous about creating an international scandal when I travel, and I was most concerned about getting onsen etiquette right. I even worried about whether waxing was expected or frowned upon, but I’ll stop there at the risk of TMI.

After our hike, I decided to take my first public onsen bath. (Skip to the bottom for the photos of the beautiful baths of Taeno-Yu.) Being the lone “gaijin” woman didn’t thrill me. But it turns out I needn’t have worried. This particular onsen, since it’s on the more luxurious side, attracts people who are a little older – in perhaps their 30’s to 60s. Most of the overnight guests were couples, but one party was a pair of older parents and their adult daughter, and another was a pair of girlfriends.

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the women’s side was deserted. (Slightly later in the day, however, the energy changes, with day visitors flowing in from other onsens in the area.) Although I was alone, I followed onsen protocol carefully. Here’s the “how to” I pieced together from online sources and the instructions I was given:

1)   Don your yukata (found in the room), leave your underwear on, and grab the long washcloth and bath towel from the room. If you don’t have a washcloth and bath towel, ask for one. (Todd and I suffered through one night/morning at Daishin-bo and dripped dry, learning later the innkeeper forgot to leave a towel for us, to her embarrassment.)

2)   Leave your slippers at the entry and proceed barefoot.

Japanese people usually turn their slippers around so they can step right in

Japanese people usually turn their slippers around so they can step right in

3)   Fold the yukata and your underwear and leave it in the baskets provided for that purpose, usually by the sink (where hairdryers are always provided, rather than in the room). Leave your large towel, too.

baskets

4)   Proceed naked, with the large washcloth only, to the cleansing area.

5)   Sit on the little stool and wash thoroughly (you don’t have to wash your hair if you keep it out of the bath). Hang on to your long washcloth.

The screen was closed to the cleansing area but the sign says this is where you shower

The screen was closed to the cleansing area but the sign says this is where you shower

6)   Enjoy soaking in the various baths – the mineral bath is kind of tingly (pleasantly so). Ahhhhh!

7)   If you go in the communal tub, wrap the big towel around you for discretion.

8)   After the bath, leave your wet washcloth in a bin provided for that purpose, and dry off where you left your towel and yukata.

DSCN2729

Here’s my tip: if you’re a little sheepish about being the big gaijin in the onsen, pick a less popular time for your first effort: morning or mid-afternoon.

On our second night, dinner was served in the lounge (the less formal dining room, but still formal), and it was again both a feast and a show, with table-top preparation of several dishes. The highlight was the presentation of small live trout, which were swimming in bamboo dishes. When they were returned, they were skewered and grilled to perfection.

The next morning, after sending our luggage ahead with the takkyubin again, we enjoyed another delicious breakfast. This morning, table-top preparation included individual iron skillets into which we cracked our own eggs (which also held two small slices of bacon), cooking to our own taste (more well done than the Japanese preference). The other grill, a small hibachi, was again used to warm cooked fish – this time river trout. As before, the meal included tea, rice and miso soup, along with some unidentified small vegetables. Our “hearty entrée” of the ay was a serving of home-made tofu, cradled in a bamboo saucer, which was seated on a bowl of ice.  It was creamy and delicious, similar in consistency to flan. The daily fruit selection was a section of orange and a slice of kiwi, served ice cold. As always “ko-hi” (coffee) was served last, again in beautiful matching cups.

I was sorry to leave the peace of the onsen. Even on a busy weekend, it had a serene atmosphere (although I could hear laughter bubbling out of one of the rooms where a group was surely enjoying sake). Next time I might be braver and enjoy the baths more.

As we were leaving, I asked Thom to leave a message thanking Ms. Suzuki, the kind older woman who escorted me around on the first day. As we loaded into the takushii, she came out and bowed deeply along with several other staff members. Then she waved energetically with both hands as we drove off.

Next: The World’s Longest Underground Railway Tunnel

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