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The Ultimate Guide to Onsen Hot Spring Etiquette and Where to Enjoy a Japanese Bath

The serene beauty of Japan is a perfect setting for a rejuvenating hot spring experience. Onsen, as the hot springs are called, are an integral part of Japanese culture and have been enjoyed for centuries for their therapeutic and relaxing properties.

With over 2,900 onsen hot springs resorts scattered throughout the country according to the Nippon Onsen Research Institute, there’s no shortage of places to unwind and soak in the soothing mineral-rich waters. But for first-time visitors, navigating the world of onsen can be a bit intimidating.

How do you bathe in an onsen? What are some of the most picturesque onsen in Japan? And what are the dos and don’ts of onsen etiquette? In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about enjoying an unforgettable onsen experience in Japan.

What is an onsen? What is the difference between ‘onsen’ and ‘sento’?

Onsen, a word that literally means “hot spring,” are natural hot water baths rich in beneficial minerals. There are various types of onsen available, including popular ones like outdoor baths (roten-buro) and indoor baths (noten-buro).

A sento is a public hot bath that typically does not use naturally sourced hot water as with an onsen. In addition, there are “super sento” establishments that offer a more luxurious experience with a variety of saunas, baths, and additional services.

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How to spot an onsen

Onsen can be easily identified once you know what to look for. They typically have drapes (noren) at the entrance and are often marked with a symbol that resembles a steam rising from a hot spring (♨) or the character 湯/ゆ.

Sento, on the other hand, may appear similar to onsen at first glance, but they are usually found in urban areas rather than rural ones, since they are not sourced from natural hot springs.

While it is possible to find onsen in large cities, the “hot bath” symbol in an urban setting usually denotes a sento rather than an onsen.

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How do you bathe in an onsen?

Before entering the facility

The term “onsen” can refer to both the hot spring itself and the accompanying facilities, which are often part of a hotel, resort, or traditional Japanese inn called a “ryokan.”

If you plan to visit for a day and have not made a reservation, you can typically purchase a ticket from a vending machine or from a person stationed near the entrance.

It’s worth noting that some facilities require visitors to remove their street shoes at the entrance, providing lockers or shelves for storage. In other cases, you may remove your shoes just before entering the bathing …

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