Know the Naked Rules of Onsen Etiquette

There's really nothing like a soak in a one of Japan's 13,300 marvelous hot springs, many of which are mineral baths with medicinal properties, to rejuvenate your tired body and lackluster spirit.  Hot springs and public baths are communal, but don't get nervous, these days almost all are segregated by the sexes.

I realize the thought of getting naked with your friends or colleagues may sound a little bizarre, but for Japanese, and foreigners who have lived here for a long time, it feels completely normal in this setting.

•    Soaking together in one of these steaming pools has been a traditional way for friends and colleagues to cement interpersonal relationships.
In fact, relaxing nude in a pool with others is called hadaka no tsukiai, naked socializing.  Like under the influence of alcohol, communication barriers can get washed away – if not during the soak then later – because you have now connected in a deeper, more trusting way.

In most of these onsen, great pains have been taken to give the impression that you are bathing outdoors in a serene natural setting (in some places you might actually be outdoors).  Large windows look out to lovely landscaping or the landscaping may be indoors – the bath having been built around massive boulders complete with grotto and ferns.

•    Be aware that many onsen and public baths will not allow tattoos.  

Tattoos are associated with gangster affiliation so many Japanese are uncomfortable around them.  Since tourism is increasing encouraged, and foreigners are increasing displaying tattoos, some will allow a small tattoo if you are able to cover it with a sticker designed for this purpose.

Upon arrival you will generally be given a small hand towel for the triple purpose of washing, drying and protecting your modesty as well as a cotton kimono called a yukata.  If you are staying at an inn, the yukata will probably be folded up in your room.

The yukata is worn to relax in and to walk to the bath, but the left lapel should always cross over the right (whether male or female).  

•    Crossing the right lapel over the left on any type of kimono, is only for mourning a death, so definitely a sign of bad luck to Japanese guests.

Upon entering the bathing room, you will find a bucket or plastic tub.  With water from the bath or a faucet along the wall, wash yourself thoroughly by sitting on one of the small plastic stools.  Fill your bucket with clear water; soap up your towel and wash with it.  Rinse your soapy hand in this bucket of clear water and then empty the water out before refilling it.  Use plenty of scoops of water to get off all the soap.  

•    Hair should not touch the bath water, so if yours is long, be sure to tie it up and, because others will be using the same water to bathe in, soap is never to be taken into a bath.

When not in the bath, the towel is draped discreetly over the pubis but it is not taken into the bath water.  You can fold it up and put it on your head to make sure no soap or dead skin cells you've scrubbed off get into the water.  Now you can relax in the pool.

•    The water temperature ranges from 105 degrees to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, so get in quickly – or slowly, if that's the only way you can do it – and keep still.  

Moving about makes the water feel hotter.

When you're done, you can rinse yourself again with cold water, but if you've been in a mineral bath, you probably want those revitalizing mineral to continue to saturate your skin. Then it's time to dry.

Perhaps you've noticed when drying your car that a damp cloth works better than a dry one.  This applies to the human body as well.  Once again, your miraculous little hand towel is there to do the job.  Just make sure you wring it out well before you leave the bathing area.

Now, find somewhere to continue relaxing together and building the precious primate bond!

by Diana Rowland

            Author of Japanese Business: Rules of Engagement

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