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November 09, 2015

I have been a little slow the past week or so in getting up new content, but I have a good excuse - I have been busy writing several guest blogs and a magazine article. It has been a lot of work but I am looking forward to those articles publishing soon. It is always fun collaborating with fellow writers who enjoy the way of life that is Tenkara.

The snow is falling in the mountains and now much of the Japanese Alps are buried under 50-80 cm of snow. However, a big storm blew in yesterday so those numbers are sure to double (maybe triple?) by the weekend. Time to break out the skis! But I digress from the main point of this post and that is onsens. Onsen, or hot springs, are everywhere in Japan. Some are indoors and some are outdoors, some are free and others cost thousands of yen. Before you embark on an onsen "adventure" though there are a few customs, courtesies, and etiquette you should be aware of.

One of my first onsens in Japan

The layout of every onsen is different but they all tend to have a room for disrobing. Often there is a shelf, baskets, or lockers to leave your personal belongings in. Unless you are in an area with a lot of foreigners your items will be there when you get back so do not worry too much. Once you are naked, clothing is almost never worn unless you are in a co-ed onsen (and even then it is still optional), you will have to clean yourself.

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You should clean yourself thoroughly before getting in. Depending on who you talk to though the definition of "cleaning oneself" varies; for some you must scrub yourself vigorously enough (with soap) that your skin turns red, others say that dumping a few buckets of onsen water over yourself is more than sufficient before climbing in for a nice soak. My rule of thumb is that if anyone is looking at me with intense disapproval than it means that I should probably go back and clean myself again. Some onsens provide soap and a towel, others do not, some onsens just provide buckets, while others have showers. A note about the showers, they are not your typical American showers - they often do not have much, if any, privacy and you sit on a stool while cleaning yourself.

Do's & Do Not's

🍒 Keep your conversations quiet, onsens are supposed to be a relaxing experience (you should recognize that the American version of quiet is drastically different than the Japanese - if the range of human hearing is 20 Hz to 20 kHz than the Japanese version of onsen quiet is 21Hz).

🍒 Bring a sweat towel with you into the onsen. You can also use it to cover yourself when walking about.

🍒 Do not wring out your sweat towel in the onsen.

🍒 Typically an onsen has two hot springs, one for guys and the other for gals. Do not worry about remembering the kanji for men (男) or women (女) - just remember that blue is for men and red is for women.

🍒 You can purchase towels from any convenience store and they typically cost ¥100-900 They are smaller than typical bath towels though, more like the size of a hand towel.

🍒 If there is a sauna at the onsen make sure you rinse yourself with a bucket before getting back into the onsen.

🍒 They do not wear sandals inside, everyone is barefoot (although if you wanted to wear sandals that would probably be okay just make sure you take them off in the changing room).

🍒 If you have tattoos it can be a problem, in the more rural areas of Japan you could be asked to leave. I have tattoos and I have been to several "rural" onsens without incident. The reason for this is that culturally those with tattoos in Japan are criminals, most often associated with the Yakuza (Japan's organized crime syndicate).

Snow monkeys

In the Alps of Japan the idigenous moneky population uses onsens to soak in during the winter to keep warm. So if you are visiting during the winter be sure to check out the snow monkeys and then go for your own soak (but not with the monkeys, they poop in the water). No trip to Japan would be complete without a trip to an onsen and once you have spent an hour in one you will never want to leave Japan.

Isaac Tait

Fallfish Tenkara is the brainchild of Isaac Tait who now lives in New England but dreams of returning, one day, to Japan. You should follow him on Twitter.