An Onsen Guide

Japan is made up of volcanic islands which can be both a blessing and a curse. One of the benefits is the abundance of onsens which can be found across the country. They are great for socializing, relaxing and are places for healing since these natural hot springs are known for their health benefits. In this guide to Japanese onsens we will be looking at what they are, the health benefits they carry, the types and more importantly, the proper onsen etiquette one should adhere to when visiting them.

  • What is an onsen?
  • Onsen etiquette
  • Types of onsens & health benefits
  • Potential health risks
  • Find an onsen in Japan

The guys from Only In Japan visit 13 different onsen towns in the Fukushima Prefecture. The video is owned and created by Only In Japan.

What is an onsen?

An onsen is a natural hot spring which works similarly to a Japanese bath house (sento). A sento uses plain heated tap water while onsen water comes naturally from the ground and is geothermally heated by mother nature. These natural hot springs are much more popular and preferred to sento’s because the water is naturally enriched with minerals and therefore carries a variety of health benefits.

Onsen etiquette

There are certain rules one should adhere to when visiting a natural hot spring in Japan. These rules are important because many other people use these facilities too.

Tattoo policy

Many facilities do not allow entry to individuals who have tattoos and the reason is to keep yakuza members out. Even though the chances of you being mistaken for a yakuza member is slim the rules still apply to everyone. Luckily, most places have become a lot less strict with this over the last few years as a result of the influx of foreign visitors to Japan. If you do have a tattoo it’s advised to phone them beforehand and ask about their tattoo policy. Most will allow entry as long as the tattoo is small enough to be properly covered up with a waterproof bandage.

Rinse off before entering the onsen

Everyone has to wash and rinse off before entering the pool since it’s a communal area. There are washing facilities on the premises where you will be provided with a bar of soap and towel but bringing your own is perfectly fine too.

Hair policy

Those who have long hair must tie their hair together with a hairband before entering. It’s not easy to enjoy an onsen while there are hair strands floating around in the water.

Full nudity is a must

The vast majority of places have a strict rule that one must enter the pool completely nude. You will of course be handed a white towel which you can use to cover up as you walk around outside. It’s expected to keep your towel with you even when inside the onsen but it cannot get wet which is why you will always see people carrying their towels on their head.

No photography allowed

Cameras are strictly forbidden around the pool area but if you need to take pictures of the onsen or surrounding areas / views it would be best to get permission beforehand.

Noise levels and alcohol consumption

The consumption of alcohol is not allowed. Apart from safety reasons, it’s also to help keep noise levels down in order to not bother other people.

Types of onsens and health benefits

The type of minerals found in a hot spring defines the category as they all carry different health benefits. We will also discuss the waning unisex onsen.

Konyoku onsen (Unisex hot spring)

When you visit onsens in Japan you will notice they are not unisex. Unisex hot springs, known as a Konyoku Onsen in Japanese, have been banned in the country since the start of the Meiji Era. This doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s just that they don’t exist in the urban areas or large towns but can still be found in the remote regions of Japan. Their numbers are in sharp decline though and there are estimated to be only a few hundred left.

Io-sen (Sulphur hot spring)

Io sen, or sulphur enriched hot springs, are especially beneficial for your skin. It clears skin; in addition the sulphur treats acne, eczema and a wide variety of rashes. It also improves blood circulation and has a therapeutic effect on people with diabetes. The only downside to this type of spring is that it smells pretty awful as sulphur smells a lot like rotten eggs.

Sansei-sen (Acidic hot spring)

This type of hot spring is not recommended for people with sensitive skin as the high levels of acid can become a skin irritant. If your skin can handle it then you can benefit from clearer and tighter skin because the acidic properties strips off dead skin cells.

Tanjun-sen (Simple water hot spring)

Tanjun are the most commonly found hot springs in Japan. They contain low levels of minerals and therefore basically carry almost no health benefits. It is however, great for relaxation and improved blood circulation.

Gantetsu-sen (Iron hot spring)

Gantetsu onsens can easily be recognized by the red water color which is caused by the very high iron content. By simply soaking in this type of onsen you will raise your red blood count level which assists your body in retaining heat.

Hoshano-sen (Radioactive hot spring)

As the name implies, it is radioactive because it contains radon. But not to worry, the radon levels are minuscule and soaking in it can be healthy as its beneficial for those suffering from inflammation and joint pain. The entry price for these types of onsens are higher but that’s because they are very rare.

Potential health risks

Now it’s time to deal with something a little more unpleasant – the associated health risks of using onsens. And yes, there are quite a few potential dangers involved but not to worry because we will also give advice on how to minimize the risks.

Bacterial infections: Most Japanese hot springs are communal areas while some are even frequented by snow monkeys. This puts people at risk of infection from bacteria such as naegleria and legionella. Keep in mind that getting an infection from an onsen is extremely rare and people who run them have recently started adding chlorine to the pools with some even regularly changing the water. On your part, make sure to wash yourself properly before entering an onsen to help minimize the amount of bacteria in the pool. Furthermore, keep your head above water at all times and you might want to reconsider entering if you have any open cuts or sores.

Dehydration: The average onsen is pretty hot so you will sweat a lot and most probably not really notice it. It can also cause heat overexposure which results in dizziness and fatigue. Just be sure to drink sufficient amounts of water before entering and limit yourself to 10 – 15 minutes at a time in the onsen.

Blood pressure: Hot springs have a tendency to push up your blood pressure so if you are already suffering from high blood pressure you may want to reconsider using an onsen.

Avalanches: Most people don’t realize this but avalanches pose a very real risk. You would of course need to be in an outdoor onsen located next to a mountain in winter for the possibility of something like this to occur. Tragically, such events have taken place numerous times over the last few years.

Slippery surfaces: The surface area around the pools is either rock or wood and both can be slippery. Practice caution when entering and exiting the onsen. This is also one of the reasons why alcohol and intoxication is prohibited.

Find an onsen in Japan

There are an estimated 26,796 onsens scattered all across Japan but don’t worry because we will help you find the perfect one. Select a region below to find a list of available onsens within that prefecture.


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