What Not to Do While Visiting an Onsen

Several years ago I left my persona as a corporate climber and established myself as a trophy wife. That pesky full length mirror in our shower insists, however, that I am in fact a consolation prize won for participation only. I`m not alone among American women in my discomfort with the naked form. Generations after the Puritans settled America, their influence is still felt.  Or this is the group on which I`ll pin the blame as many other cultures, including the Japanese, don`t suffer from the same aversion to appearing unadorned. At least in a public bath.

The Japanese have been partaking of the daily bath ritual for centuries. It`s most likely the Japanese opposed the black ships sailed by Admiral Perry due to the stench of the sailors. While we were avoiding a good dousing with soap and water due to concern that cleanliness was the first step toward the plague, our Japanese counterparts had perfected the notion of a relaxing immersion both for body and soul.

Ikkeisai Yoshiiku- 17th Century

This was the baggage I carried with me on my first trip to an au naturale onsen.

The site was an outdoor onsen surrounded by gasp inspiring views of the snow-covered mountain landscape beyond. And koi. This would certainly be a welcome ending to a day spent filming Offspring #1 careening down, through and over mountains on a snowboard. Whatever the rabbit can do to the stump (go over, under, through, around, inside, on top) OS#1 can do to the mountain. I am not as facile with a stump and often find myself in a prone position with a nose full of snow. If I could get through my modest tendencies, the hot onsen could breathe movement back in to the joints and muscles in early onset rigamortis.

As is tradition, I put on the yukata for the trip down the elevator. I`d been in the elevator on numerous occasions with yukata wearing individuals, however, it felt to me like walking through the hotel in my pajamas.

I tried to recruit Offspring #2.

“No way. Sitting in a bath tub, naked, with your mom is weird.”

Then Offspring #1 pointed out a significant mistake on my part.

“Mom, the yukata is folded wrong. Left side over right side.” A significant face-saving piece of advice since right over left is reserved for funerals.

I prepared myself for the pajama march through the hotel. I was vaguely aware of the “process” for entering. Strip down, clothes in a basket, carry a small towel in to another area for showering, and finally, jump in the onsen. Getting caught studying the other bathers for guidance could be embarrassing.

I stripped down and put my clothes in the basket.

The other ladies paraded around the room shoulders back and chin faced forward. Like a prepubescent teenager, I slinked to the shower room.

For illustration only. He was not in our onsen. tokyopog.blogspot.com

Here`s where I encountered several issues. First of all, unlike the other bathers, my colossal buckethead loomed large above the partitions. I would have to keep my eyes firmly pointed to the front. Not 100% sure of the proper use of the accoutrements, I took a peek at my neighbor. She was rinsing with the bucket and sitting on the stool while I was sitting on the bucket and missing the stool. Once the stool was located several concerns attacked me at once. How long can viruses and such live on a stool? Is this even more dangerous to one`s health than placing ones cheeks DIRECTLY on the toilet seat? Should I put the towel on the stool and then sit down? I suppose if onsen participation were a health hazard it would have been noticed during the last 10 centuries. I sat. I draped my towel over the partition.

It promptly fell in to my neighbors bath cubby. Unsure if poking my noggin over the top and asking her to toss it back was impolite, I decided to act like nothing had happened. A life skill I use to avoid embarrassment in many situations. Paper towels could be used for drying in a pinch. When I sprayed her with my shower nozzle, on the other hand, I felt an apology was in order. She wordlessly placed my towel on the partition.

After a thorough soap scouring, I was ready for the onsen.

The other women walked casually to the onsen as I streaked past more hunched over than the hunchback of Notre Dame.

I had read somewhere that it was best to fully immerse one`s self in the water versus wading in an inch or two at a time. The author claimed the bather would feel discomfort at the heat for about a minute before becoming accustomed to the hot temperature. I took this approach. The other bathers politely ignored my “hot hot hot” breaking their meditative moods. It`s true that after about a minute the heat is no longer an issue, for the nerve endings in the skin are completely burnt through and no longer function in a sensory capacity. The process enlightened me to the plight of the lobster headed to the pot, the hissing upon hitting the boiling water, the desperate pinchers grasping for an exit, and finally the fiery red color indicating doneness. I too hissed, grasped for an exit, and finally settled in to the bath a violent shade of red previously only seen on my fingernails.

It was then I realized the Japanese ladies` porcelain skin was still porcelain. While I needed a burn unit, they perched languidly on the side wall and gazed nonchalantly at the view.

Neon colored koi slowly circled the pond in front.

The other women sat in two and half feet of water with the white towels on top of their heads. For some unknown reason, towels on the side are a no no which leaves the head as the only resting spot.

I would have liked some sake....

I realized too late that my towel was a bath towel whereas these ladies had hand sized towels. They all pretended not to notice as I wrapped my towel turban style however, curiosity at the foreigner unaware of towel size proved irresistible and on que, all snuck a peek at once.

Nervous laughter from me followed by an involuntary response by the body of turning an even deeper shade of red -which I thought impossible.

I turned to the side and saw an American woman I know. Under normal circumstances, a friendly hello followed by the pleasantries would have been expected. But naked?

“Well HEY- how are you? I notice your boobs are a victim of gravity too! Sweet!” or

“Hey, there`s a mole on your hind side you may not know about. You might want to have that checked.”

I sat for a minute hoping she hadn`t seen me through the steam. Apparently she was also tongue-tied and slowly moved toward the opposite end. Will the image of her in my memory always be of her naked? Will she always carry a naked image of me? Not a pleasant thought.

I made my way to the edge to watch the koi. Then I looked at the view. Then I got bored. It had been 5 minutes.

Maybe I`m not the bathing type. I swam through the 2 feet of water to the exit for the second most painful part of the experience. Walking from the onsen in snow weather to the door. Although watching the steam rising off one`s body is very entertaining to watch.

All total, I spent about 40 minutes getting ready for a 5 minute dip. I`m certainly the minority, however, as onsens are ubiquitous in Japan and everyone, including the foreigners, loves to visit.

And of course the snow monkeys.

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30 Responses to What Not to Do While Visiting an Onsen

  1. Dana says:

    Hahahaha and hahahaha some more! 🙂 My sister’s friend had a similarly horrifying first experience at a Japanese public bath when she was on a student exchange, only she’s a 6 foot tall, buxom redhead. The Japanese bodies were all demurely immersed in the bath water, but the water only came up just under her (relatively gigantic) breasts. She tried to sink deeper to cover herself up, but then her legs were bumping with other people’s legs. Stuck out like a sore, super red thumb. All in all, a bad scene. 🙂
    One more hahaha for good measure– I can’t stop giggling over this post!


  2. Rurousha says:

    Huge grin! You’ve made me remember my first onsen visit. I couldn’t decide how to go about washing my, ummm, unmentionables. Just ignore it? Surely not. I sneaked a glance at my neighbour, who was 1 meter tall and 103 years old. She sat legs akimbo, scrubbing with alarming vigour, soap and water flying everywhere. I fear I’ve never recovered from that sight …

    Many years later I enjoy onsen, but preferably in winter, in a rotenburo, entirely on my own. Hot private bath, great. Noisy crowded chattering-obaasan-invaded onsen, meh. Anyway you can’t read in an onsen. Case closed. ^^


  3. Just no. Sorry, I am not bathing in public.
    You are much more adventurous than I am


  4. Tar-Buns says:

    Oh, Emily-san, you made me laugh out loud for MINUTES!
    Thank you for the journey down memory lane. I bathed at some town baths, and in many onsens, some through Ryokans I stayed at.

    Being rather buxom myself and not so slender as you, I lived your oh so eloquent journey into the world of Japanese Onsens. What to do about all that nakedness???

    How about joining the office ladies in the onsen late at night, at my goodbye trip to Nikko, while very much intoxicated and not petite. Yikes! I guess some memories are better left unattended.

    Good to hear from you. How long are you in Japan?


    • That truly is something to think about. I belong to a club consisting mainly of Japanese women who used to go to the onsen together annually. I hope they don`t revive that any time soon!
      I`m not really sure of how long we will be here. I hope we stay for a while!


  5. I’m sure I, too, would use the wrong towel and make all of the other mistakes you did–only add to that–being unable to handle, on top of it all, the challenge that is gravity–falling flat on my you-know-what. Though my hip might be broken, at least I would get the short part right. Hilarious post, Emily!


  6. That was an extremely funny article ! Thank you so much! I had a similar experience but it was in a sauna in Austria where all the sexes wander about stark naked and to top it off they play cards in the dry sauna! No kidding card table and all! Much comradeliness and laughter!
    Can’t say I felt comfortable especially when being coached in the art of the cold shower (with jets striking me form 6 different angles ) and the languid “coach” standing with his towel draped negligently over his shoulder! It’s all different strokes for different folks I guess.


  7. Bob says:

    Funny story! I don’t know if it’s because I’m a man our if I’m just a little more liberal minded but those baths sound do relaxing. Hot steamy water and that view, wow.

    Just relax and enjoy we have no control over the way God made us.

    Great read though, too funny!


  8. Jackie Cangro says:

    Spending 40 minutes to enjoy a 5 minute dip sounds like a ride at Disney World. But at least there you get to keep your clothes on.

    The snow monkeys! I am fascinated with them. I don’t know why. I saw a piece about them on a travel show years ago that they are one of the few, if not only, monkeys in the world that like to bathe in the water.


  9. Emiel says:

    Loved this one Emily! I can so imagine you looking at all the Japanese ladies, trying to figure out what to do next. Hilarious!
    I have been in an open-air onsen (with snow) once, I think it was in Kyushu. Luckily me and my wife were the only ones, so we could secretly avoid the man/woman separation 🙂
    That picture of the pond is stunning..great post!


  10. theoutdoormd says:

    Great post!
    I’m a thorough addict to onsens. I was lucky enough to have my daughter who lives in Japan as a guide or I can’t imagine how I would have figured out all the rules. Many hotel onsens will post rules in English, in case we forget (no other language…so I guess we are just kinda slow?)

    Anyway, there is a huge place called Spa World in Osaka (and I guess in some other places), that has a whole floor devoted to internationally themed hot springs. We were there during Bon (one of Japan’s national holidays) when they had a special deal. There must have been a thousand women circulating through….all pretty much following the rules. I highly recommend a visit


    • Spa World- that sounds hilarious! LIke a theme park for onsens!I`ll have to keep an eye out although I don`t make it down to Osaka since it`s out of snowboarding range- our winter destination!


      • theoutdoormd says:

        Yes, you definitely feel like you are in a theme park. But the water was hot….and that says it all when it comes to an onsen. Since you rotate around and the settings change, it gets around the boredom. There are some mud baths and other international baths there, since it is kind of a soaking around the world theme. Everyone did do the scrubbing off thing, though…seemingly multiple times.

        I wouldn’t call it peaceful though.


  11. Tori Nelson says:

    I laughed so hard I peed my pants… and I just kept. on. reading! I particularly love “No way. Sitting in a bath tub, naked, with your mom is weird.” Pshh. Kids these days.


  12. Ashley says:

    LOL… Thanks for sharing, and it’s always fun reading about people’s first time in an onsen or sento. The thing about the towel, though you probably would have been fine setting it off to the side, on a similar note it makes me crazy that sometimes there are little differences in how to act depending on what part of Japan you’re in and what onsen or sento you go to. I’ve been to some places and very few women cover themselves with towels, but I’ve been to others where most of them do. So I always feel like I need to imitate so I don’t stick out more than I already do… I never put the towel on my head though, usually just set it on the side or something like that. Though I try to do as everyone else does most of the time, I sometimes wonder if I am at all, or if they all are secretly thinking that I’m so silly doing this or that. Eh, oh well. I stand out anyway.

    Oh, and the stool, I always spray it with the shower nozzle before and after I use it. I noticed women doing this when I first came here so now I just do the same. I’m sure they keep them incredibly clean anyway, but still. Seems like rinsing it after is common courtesy. (Oh the things the books don’t tell you…)


    • I`m so glad you passed along that bit of advice! I`ll make sure I do from here on out. I mean, I`ll continue to do that from here on! Watching and then imitating is a crucial skill to learn when you`re a foreigner neh?


  13. Michi says:

    I really, really loved this post! It reminded me of me, actually, a lot of it consisted of things I totally would have done (question the stool, drop the towel, rush to the water, peek over at the other ladies to make sure I’m doing it right only to find out, woops, nope! and get giggled at. Ahh!). Mmmmm, an onsen with a snowy view of the mountains sounds glorious right about now. It’s freezing here at the moment. I’ve heard there’s a hot spring nearby though, I wonder if I can head over and pretend I’m in Japan for half an hour while my muscles and bones defrost.

    Do the snow monkey bathe while visitors are bathing, too, by the way? They look like mischievous creatures!!


  14. The problem with the monkeys is they like to throw snowballs- and poo- at the other occupants. based on previous experience, they also bite. Ouch. They are so cute though!

    I would love to hear about the hot spring there. Other than the ones in Yosemite- or one of those Western parks- do we even have them in the US? Not sure?


  15. Cara Mia says:

    Oh my goodness, my daughter & I laughed until we had tears coming out, & then we laughed some more! I have to tell you, I don’t know if I could have gone through with it, just based on the wooden stool alone ~ ooohhhh ~ the agony of placing my WET cheeks on some wooden (read all sooorrts of germs allll over, nesting….uuuggghh) WET stool ~ooohhhhh ~ ohh man ~ shivering with the thought right now. I am one of those people that try hard not to use a public toilet unless I am desperate, & then I have to get an anti-bacterial handwipe & clean the seat & the break in the seat, & then, you know, cover it up with about 100 yards of toilet tissue, all balanced for optimum ~no touchy touchy~. And I swear I am not really much a germa-phobe. Only in this one thing. Raw cheeks touching where someone else’s raw cheeks have touched. And perhaps …other …parts… ohhhh.
    My years of being a nurse cannot allow me to enjoy such a thought. Anyway ~ totally & utterly hilarious!!! Once my son was at our local pool on the off-hours, getting ready for a swim-meet, when he happened upon an older gentleman in the showers. Now this older gentleman was a member of our church, & friends with our family as well. As it happens, apparently some folks get really comfortable in American pool rooms as well, in fact, my son said it’s actually somewhat common on the guys side to just strip down & get your swim gear on in front of everyone, as there aren’t more than 2 stalls in there, anyway. However, he said, this particular gentleman had no qualms about taking a leisurely shower in the raw, & then waltzing about for some time afterword as well. My son came out of there a little shaken, (the guy is in his late 60’s, so perhaps while not overly ancient to you & I, he certainly was to my son), saying “well. mom, I now know Brother So & So far better than I ever thought possible!” He then went on to tell me how he was going to start a work-out routine so that , you know, he could stay in shape, you know, for a lonnnng long time. After gasping in laughter for quite a while, he said, “I never realized what a…blessing… clothes really were.” oh man, my ribs for a while after that one! (My husband said to him, “sorta scary, isn’t it son, like looking into the future?”) It must have scarred him somewhat, 5 yrs later, & he is still regularly working out! hahahahahaha I also wanted to thank you for this awesome blog, I have been reading it through for the past few days, & we have just been laughing our eyes out & loving it! You write so well, & I can just imagine myself in so many of your situations ~ (except that stool, lol, I just don’t think I could have sat on that stool!)


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