When it comes to finding relaxation and rejuvenation, few experiences can compare to a visit to a Japanese onsen in 2023. These traditional hot springs have been a cherished part of Japanese culture for centuries, and offer a unique and serene bathing experience. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore what exactly is an onsen, how to enjoy and appreciate them while observing etiquette, and discover some of the famous onsen destinations in Japan.

Table of Contents


What is an onsen?

Japan is famous for its onsen (or hot springs), because of its unique geography. Japan is home to many volcanoes and seismic activity so there is a large supply of high-quality hot springs, which have been enjoyed by Japanese people for centuries. The hot springs are believed to have positive health benefits, such as helping to relax the body and improve circulation. They are also often aesthetically beautiful, with breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.

Definition and explanation of onsen

A Japanese onsen is a natural hot spring bath used for public bathing and relaxation. Onsen are typically located in mountainous areas and are famous for their therapeutic mineral waters. The water is heated by geothermal activity and contains a variety of different minerals which are believed to have health benefits. Onsens are a popular tourist attraction and are commonly featured in Japanese popular culture.

The word “onsen” itself refers to both the hot spring itself and the bathing facilities that surround it. While onsen translates in English to “hot spring”, there is a clear definition that an onsen must be of a certain temperature and contain a certain amount of minerals. 

These hot springs are found throughout Japan, and each one offers its own unique traits and qualities.

What is the difference between Onsen and Sento?

Onsen and Sento are two types of public bathhouses in Japan. An Onsen is a Japanese hot spring that typically features outdoor pools with naturally-heated hot spring water, and often also includes indoor baths. A Sento, on the other hand, is a traditional Japanese bathhouse that uses artificially-heated water, usually supplied through a local boiler. Onsen is popular throughout Japan, while Sento is more common in cities. Generally, Onsen requires full-body nudity, while Sento allows patrons to wear swimsuits while bathing.

Key features of onsen in Japan

An onsen typically consists of several bathing areas, segregated by gender, with each area containing a variety of baths. These may include indoor and outdoor baths, known as “rotenburo,” and other specialized baths such as jet baths, herbal baths, and even sand baths. The water in an onsen is sourced from natural hot springs and is believed to have various therapeutic properties.

Japnese onsen benefits 

Japanese onsen has many physical and mental health benefits. Onsen warms the body from the inside out, helping to reduce stress and relax muscles. The minerals in the water, such as sulfur and iron, can help to detoxify the body, promote circulation and soothe skin irritations. The hot water can also help improve digestion, reduce fatigue, and alleviate joint and muscle pain. Mentally, the hot water can help reduce anxiety and depression, and can even promote better sleep. The social aspect of going to an onsen also has many positive benefits, as it encourages conversation, physical and mental relaxation, and a sense of peace.

The significance of onsen in Japanese culture

Onsens have long been an integral part of Japanese culture and society. They offer not only a place of relaxation and physical rejuvenation but also a space for socializing and bonding. Baths have been an essential component of Japanese social life for centuries, and the onsen experience provides a unique opportunity for people to unwind, connect with nature, and immerse themselves in a traditional Japanese activity.

onsen legs inside onsen

How to enjoy an onsen hot bath

When visiting an onsen, it’s important to be aware of certain customs and etiquette and to familiarize yourself with the proper etiquette and rules.

Proper onsen rules and etiquette

It is customary to clean yourself before you enter the onsen. You should scrub and shampoo your body to make sure you are clean and free of sweat and dirt before entering the onsen. This will help prevent the spread of bacteria or other contaminants, ensuring a pleasant and hygienic experience for all.

Each onsen may have specific guidelines, but there are general hot spring etiquette principles that apply to most onsen experiences. It is also customary to wash and rinse your body thoroughly within the onsen facilities before entering the bath, using soap and water with the provided shower stations and stools. Additionally, it is customary to enter the bath naked and avoid bringing any clothing, towels, or personal belongings into the bathing area.

What to expect when visiting an onsen

When visiting an onsen, it is important to understand that nudity is a normal part of the bathing experience (separated by gender). It may initially feel uncomfortable for those unfamiliar with this cultural practice, but it is essential to embrace and respect the cultural norms of the country you are visiting. It is important to relax, soak in the healing waters, and enjoy the serene environment.

How to bathe in an onsen

Bathing in an onsen involves immersing yourself in the hot spring water and enjoying its therapeutic properties. It is common to soak in the bath for extended periods of time, allowing the heat and minerals of the spring water to ease sore muscles and promote relaxation. Many bathers find it enjoyable to alternate between the various baths and take breaks in the rest areas provided.


Understanding onsen facilities

What to wear – Japanese onsen attire

Generally, a traditional yukata robe (light cotton robe) or borrowed accommodation bathrobe is worn. Depending on the onsen, you may need to wear a provided modesty towel while walking around the facility. When entering the onsen itself, it is important to be completely nude, as wearing any clothing (including swimsuits) is considered inappropriate.

The changing room and preparation

Upon arrival at an onsen, visitors are typically provided with a small towel, which can be used to cover themselves when moving between baths or entering the changing room. It is customary to undress completely in the appropriate gendered changing room and store belongings in lockers. Once prepared, visitors can proceed to the bath area and enjoy the different bathing options available.

To enhance your onsen experience further, many establishments provide special towels called “onsen towels.” These towels are typically smaller than regular bath towels and can be used for drying off or covering oneself while moving around the facility.

Types of baths in an onsen

Onsens offer a wide variety of bathing options, each with its own unique characteristics and benefits. Traditional baths may include hot water baths, cool water baths, and even saunas. Visitors can explore the different baths and choose the ones that suit their needs and preferences. It is important to read any signs or instructions provided to ensure a safe and enjoyable bathing experience.

What is the Japanese Onsen Temperature?

The temperature of a Japanese onsen (hot spring) depends on its location and the minerals dissolved in the water. In general, onsen water is usually somewhere between 25°C and 42°C (77°F and 108°F). The temperature of the water can also vary depending on the area and time of day. The average temperature for most onsen is around 38°C (100°F).

Are there mixed onsen in Japan?

Yes, there are mixed onsen (hot springs) in Japan. While traditionally onsen were gender-segregated, due to an increased interest in the onsen experience from foreign visitors, some establishments have started to offer mixed baths or gender-free zones. This is particularly popular in resorts located in popular tourist destinations. In addition, some onsen allow visitors to select their gender when booking a visit, which typically results in a separate area for male and female visitors.

Mixed onsen are a relatively new concept, with many being built since the mid-2000s in response to changing social norms and laws prohibiting gender discrimination. Japan is home to more than 200 mixed-gender onsen, including some of the country’s most famous hot springs, such as Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma prefecture, Hiruzen Kogen Onsen in Hiroshima prefecture, and Yumura Onsen in Yamaguchi prefecture.

Private onsen options

For those seeking a more private and intimate onsen experience, many onsen establishments offer private bath options. These private baths can be reserved in advance and provide a secluded space for individuals, couples, or families to enjoy the soothing waters in privacy.

Tattoo left arm

Tattoos and onsen culture

One important aspect of onsen etiquette is the handling of tattoos. In traditional Japanese culture, tattoos are often associated with criminal organizations and have historically carried a negative stigma. As a result, some onsens have policies that restrict entry of bathers with tattoos. These policies are in place to maintain the comfort and safety of all visitors, and it is important to respect and adhere to them.

Alternatives for bathers with tattoos

For those with tattoos who still want to enjoy the onsen experience, there are alternatives available. Some onsen establishments offer private baths that can be reserved, allowing individuals with tattoos to enjoy the hot springs in a more secluded setting. Additionally, there are also public baths called “sento” that may have more relaxed restrictions regarding tattoos.

The history of tattoo taboo in Japan

The taboo surrounding tattoos in Japan has deep historical roots. Tattoos were often used as a form of punishment or to mark criminals, leading to their association with criminal activities. While attitudes towards tattoos are slowly changing in modern Japanese society, it is important to be respectful of the traditional cultural norms surrounding tattoos in certain spaces, such as onsens.

Tattoo-friendly onsen

Many traditional onsen forbid people with tattoos from enjoying their hot springs and bathhouses, due to their perceived associations with organized crime. However, in recent years, more and more onsen have become tattoo-friendly due to Europeans and Americans becoming more interested in traveling to Japan. These tattoo-friendly onsen are typically found in the large cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto as well as in the Southern regions such as Okinawa. Some of the tattoo-friendly onsen include Yurakucho Onsen, Tsurumi Onsen, and Oedo Onsen Monogatari.


Exploring famous onsen destinations in Japan

There are various types of onsen throughout Japan, each with its own distinct features and benefits. Some well-known best onsen destinations include Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, the oldest hot spring hotel in the world located in Yamanashi Prefecture; Ginzan Onsen, a picturesque hot spring town nestled in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture; Kinosaki Onsen, famous for its seven public bathhouses and charming atmosphere; Kusatsu Onsen, known for its high-quality mineral-rich waters; and Hakone Onsen, a popular hot spring resort area near Tokyo.

Beppu – The hot springs city

Beppu, located on the island of Kyushu, is renowned for its numerous hot springs and has earned the nickname “the hot springs city.” The town is home to a wide variety of onsen options, ranging from traditional outdoor baths to hot sand baths. Visitors to Beppu can immerse themselves in the healing waters and enjoy the unique bathing experiences that this vibrant city has to offer.

Kusatsu – A traditional onsen town

Kusatsu is a picturesque onsen town situated in Gunma Prefecture, known for its abundant hot springs and charming atmosphere. The town’s onsen water is believed to have exceptional healing properties and attracts visitors from far and wide. Kusatsu offers a range of traditional ryokan (Japanese inns) and bathing facilities, allowing visitors to fully immerse themselves in the authentic onsen experience.

Visiting onsen resorts in Japan

For those seeking a more luxurious onsen experience, Japan is home to numerous onsen resorts. These resorts often offer a wide range of amenities, including multiple types of baths, relaxation areas, and exquisite dining options. Whether located in the countryside or by the ocean, onsen resorts provide the perfect setting for a serene and indulgent getaway.

If you’re looking for an authentic Japanese accommodation experience combined with an onsen visit, consider staying at an “onsen ryokan.” These traditional Japanese inns offer not only access to hot springs but also traditional Japanese meals, tatami-matted rooms, and exceptional hospitality.

What is the onsen cost in Japan?

The cost of staying at an onsen in Japan can vary widely depending on the specific type of onsen and associated services available. Generally, a basic onsen experience can cost anywhere from 500-2000 yen ($4.50-18.00 USD), while more luxurious and private onsen can cost upwards of 10,000 yen ($90.00 USD). In addition, many onsen require an entry fee for visitors, which ranges from around 400-1500 yen ($3.60-13.50 USD). Food and drink prices can also vary depending on the quality and type of establishment.

How to join an onsen tour?

Joining an onsen tour typically involves booking a hotel or ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that offers onsen tour packages. Many of these hotels offer onsen tours that include a shuttle bus to pick you up from the hotel lobby and transport you to and from the onsen. Tour packages generally include the entrance fee to the onsen, the onsen experience, a meal or snack, and any other activities offered at the onsen. It is important to be aware of the dress code at the onsen, as it is not appropriate to enter wearing street clothes or a swimsuit. Many ryokans also offer private onsen experiences, or you can book a private tour through a local tour operator.

Check out Tripadvisor for the Top 10 best Onsen Spas in Japan.

Did you know? 

Onsen eggs are another unique aspect of Japanese hot springs. These eggs are boiled in the natural hot spring waters until they turn into deliciously soft-boiled treats with a slightly sulfuric flavor. They can often be found at certain onsens or local markets nearby.

Onsen Egg

Wrap-Up: When in Japan, give it a try! 

Japanese onsens offer a soothing and rejuvenating experience that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the country’s rich cultural heritage. Whether you’re seeking relaxation or healing properties from the mineral-rich waters, exploring different onsen destinations in Japan is sure to be an unforgettable experience.


What is a Japanese onsen?

A Japanese onsen is a traditional hot spring bath that is an important aspect of Japanese culture. It is a place where people can relax, soak in the hot water, and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of the natural hot water.

Is onsen the same as a hot spring? 

Yes, onsen and hot springs are the same thing. Onsen is the Japanese term for a naturally occurring hot spring, usually consisting of a pool of hot water formed by geothermal activity. Hot springs are also naturally occurring thermal pools of heated groundwater that are typically caused when water flows from an aquifer or underground river through fractures in the Earth’s crust. In either case, the water is heated due to the heat energy present in the Earth’s crust.

What is onsen etiquette?

Onsen etiquette refers to the rules and customs that should be followed while bathing in a Japanese onsen. These include washing and rinsing your body before entering the onsen, keeping your towel out of the bath water, and being mindful of other bathers.

How do you bathe in an onsen?

To bathe in an onsen, you need to follow a specific process. First, enter the changing room and remove your clothes. Take a small towel with you to the bathing area. Rinse your body thoroughly with the shower or rinse stations provided. Once clean, enter the hot spring bath and enjoy your soak.

What should I do before entering the onsen?

Before entering the onsen, you should first rinse and wash your body. This is usually done in the shower or rinse stations available in the changing room. It is important to thoroughly cleanse yourself before entering the bath.

Can I wear a bathing suit in an onsen?

In most traditional Japanese onsens, wearing a bathing suit is not allowed. Onsens are typically gender-segregated, and it is customary to bathe without any clothing. However, there are some onsens that provide private bath options where you can wear a bathing suit.

Where can I find onsen in Japan?

Onsens can be found all across Japan. They are often located in scenic areas near hot springs. Many ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) also have their own onsen facilities for guests to enjoy.

What is the history of onsen in Japan?

Onsen have a long history in Japan and are deeply rooted in the country’s hot spring culture. The practice of bathing in natural hot water baths rich in beneficial minerals has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries.

What is the difference between a public onsen and a private onsen?

A public onsen is a communal bathing facility where multiple people can bathe together. It is usually gender-segregated and may have different bathing areas. A private onsen, on the other hand, is a more exclusive option where individuals or small groups can enjoy a bath in a private setting.

What should I expect when entering the changing room of an onsen?

When entering the changing room of an onsen, you can expect to find separate areas for men and women. There may be lockers or baskets to store your belongings, as well as showers or rinse stations for cleaning your body before entering the bath.

What is the significance of onsen in Japanese culture?

Onsen hold great significance in Japanese culture as they are considered places of relaxation, healing, and rejuvenation. They are also seen as a way to connect with nature and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of natural hot water.

What is the significance of one in Japanese culture?

Onsen hold great significance in Japanese culture as they are considered places of relaxation, healing, and rejuvenation. They are also seen as a way to connect with nature and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of natural hot water.

How Often Do Japanese Go To Onsen?

The frequency of Japanese people visiting onsen, or hot springs, varies greatly depending on the individual. Generally speaking, regular Japanese onsen visitors go several times a year, while occasional visitors may do it only once or twice in a year. In some cases, it is even possible for Japanese people to visit onsen on a weekly basis. The most popular onsen spots for Japanese people are usually located near mountains, which are often visited during the winter months when snow is present. Many people also visit onsen during their summer holidays.

How long should you soak in onsen? 

The exact length of time you should soak in an onsen will depend on individual preference. Generally, it is recommended to stay in an onsen for 10-15 minutes. This allows you to relax and enjoy the benefits of the hot springs while avoiding any potential adverse health effects from prolonged exposure. Additionally, it is important to stay hydrated while bathing in an onsen, as it can lead to dehydration if the water temperature is too hot.

Can you go to onsen on your period?

It depends on the onsen. Some onsens follow the traditional Japanese rule of not allowing people to enter the baths while menstruating, while some onsens have relaxed this rule and allow entry regardless of whether someone is menstruating. It is best to check with the onsen before going to confirm their policy.

Are you supposed to shower after onsen?

The answer depends on the onsen you are referring to. Traditional Japanese onsen, which are public bathhouses that use natural hot spring water, require visitors to cleanse themselves before entering the pool by showering and washing their bodies thoroughly in the shower area. Therefore, it is considered polite to shower after each use of the bath area of the onsen as well.

Should you eat before or after onsen?

It is generally recommended to bathe before eating when taking an onsen, as it is believed that the heat from the onsen can help to relax the digestive system and improve digestion. The bath also helps to eliminate toxins in the body and prepare the body for digestion. It is also believed that the heat of the onsen can help to break down oils and fats, which makes it easier for the body to digest. Some people report feeling nauseous after soaking in the hot water for an extended period of time, so it is best to wait until after your onsen session to eat in order to avoid discomfort. Additionally, it is important to drink plenty of water before and after the onsen in order to replenish lost fluids.

Can I go to an onsen during pregnancy?

It is generally not recommended to go to an onsen, or hot spring, during pregnancy due to the risk of overheating that can be caused by high temperature water. Moreover, the minerals in the water can pose a risk to the developing fetus. When there is a risk of overheating, the pregnant woman may experience symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, which can be dangerous. Therefore, it is best to avoid going to an onsen during pregnancy.

Can you visit an onsen during pregnancy?

It is generally not recommended to go to an onsen, or hot spring, during pregnancy due to the risk of overheating that can be caused by high-temperature water. Moreover, the minerals in the water can pose a risk to the developing fetus. When there is a risk of overheating, the pregnant woman may experience symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and vomiting, which can be dangerous. Therefore, it is best to avoid going to an onsen during pregnancy.

Can I drink alcohol in the bath area?

No, it is not recommended to consume alcoholic beverages in bath areas such as public or private spas, hot tubs, or saunas. Consuming alcohol in these areas can increase the risk of serious health complications such as increased heart rate, dehydration, and potential drowning. Additionally, local laws may prohibit alcohol consumption in certain bath areas and fines may be issued for violations of the law.

Can I shave in the washing area of an onsen?

No, it is not advisable to shave in the washing area of an onsen. Onsens are traditional Japanese hot springs and bathing areas, and visitors should respect the customs of the area. Shaving in the washing area may affect the cleanliness of the bath, and can be considered disrespectful to other visitors.