Confessions of an Onsen Virgin

I’ve done a lot of things in my travelling life, but one of the experiences that baffled me most was the Japanese onsen. Yes, the simple task of taking a hot spring bath had me stumped… but for good reason. It wasn’t being naked as the day I was born – who cares. It was because I didn’t know the protocol.

I’d heard tales of awkward onsen experiences, such as men accidentally walking into the women’s bathing area or people doing bommies into the water, and was determined to not commit any faux pas of my own.

On a trip to Okinawa, I had the chance to give the onsen experience a whirl. Having no internet access immediately prior to taking the plunge, I was unable to Google the correct etiquette – I had to learn on the fly.

Located within the Murasaki Mura cultural park, my hotel – Hotel Murasaki – conveniently had its own onsite onsen. I entered through a rather plain waiting room; there were no streams lined with pebbles and bamboo, no pipe music playing. It was just a white box with a few tables and chairs.

I gave my entry voucher to the lady at the register. She smiled and motioned me towards the men’s change room, and made sure I entered the correct doorway. Crisis one avoided, no women’s change room for me!

In the locker room, it was just as basic. This wasn’t the James Bond onsen experience I saw on ‘You Only Live Twice’… but to be honest it really didn’t need to be. I was here to do as the locals do, to relax after a long day.

The onsen at Murasakimura
The onsen at Murasakimura

My first real dilemma, towel etiquette. Should I wear it in to the wash room? Should I leave it in my locker for when I’m finished? Like some creepy stalker, I opened the door a fraction to see what others were doing. Scanning the room from left and right, I couldn’t see spot any sign of life. Damn.

Just as I was about to enter the main bathing area, another patron opened the door to exit. I must have frightened the life out of him. He was carrying just a small washcloth. I was relieved. That answered my question about the washcloth in my locker! It was time to get my onsen on.

I used the washcloth as a modesty towel as I strolled over to the showering area. Small partitions just a few feet high separated the showers. There were an assortment of soaps and shampoos to choose from. One man was already mid wash, so I followed his lead and sat down.

When in Japan, do as the Japanese do…

I wasn’t sure how long to spend showering, so once again I followed the other gentleman’s example and waited until he’d headed to the bath area. I hope he didn’t notice me. After a minute, I made my way over to the bath tubs.

There were three hot tubs filled with wonderfully fragrant blue water, which smelled a bit like a Radox bath soak, and a larger bath opposite. The small baths were quite hot, but the main bath was a more inviting temperature.

The other patrons had placed their washcloths on their heads, so I followed their lead and did the same. I later found out it is considered rude to place the washcloth in the water, as was wringing it out in the water if you drop it. If you do drop the towel, correct etiquette is to wring it outside of the bath.

Though the onsen was located within a tourist facility, it seemed to be predominantly businessmen that were frequenting it. No one spoke. No one made eye contact. They just bathed in silence. Every patron was there simply to wash, de-stress and then carry on with the rest of their evening.

Other patrons exited the water and lightly dried themselves off with the washcloth before heading back into the locker area. After five minutes or so soaking in the water, I dried off, rinsed and then trotted off back to my room, safe in the knowledge I hadn’t committed any big mistakes.

The onsen experience in general wasn’t anything to be scared of. It was a little awkward at first, but I can see the appeal and why it’s such a staple of Japanese life. Needless to say, I’ve since brushed up on the basics.

What was your first Japanese onsen experience like?  

Written by
Chris Ashton

We're Chris Ashton and Simon Ceglinski, two Aussie travellers with a love of exploration and adventure, and the odd bit of luxury thrown in. We seek out street art, street food, and scuba diving wherever we go, and prefer the road less travelled over well-worn tourist paths.

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  • Isn’t it the strangest thing! Although in saying that – after 7-8 hours a day boarding in Hakuba for 8 days the Onsen was such a treat! Soaking my sore muscles was an everyday ritual – I was lucky that we stayed at a boutique hotel and I had my own private Onsen 7 days out of the 8. Had it not been for the etiquette poster I would have had no idea what to do!

    • Definitely agree. It’s so relaxing after a long day. If there was an onsen near my home I’d practically live there.

Written by Chris Ashton