The bathhouse concept is something that was completely foreign to me until I took my first trip to Asia in 2012. I had traveled to South Korea with a group of students from my college as well as a few other colleges around the U.S., and we wanted to take a little break from our demanding teaching schedules.

We found a local Jimjilbang, and while I knew that going to this Asian “spa” meant being in a changing room surrounded by naked Korean women, I couldn’t help but feel extremely awkward and out of place. I had gone to the Jimjilbang with a team member that I wasn’t completely willing to get naked in front of, so I kept my underwear and bra on, washed my hair, and quickly put on the robe that they provided. This particular Jimjilbang that we went to was co-ed after leaving the locker rooms, so there were only saunas, a few massage rooms, an eating area, and even a karaoke room.

But I’m not here to talk about my experience in South Korea. I’m here to talk about Onsen.

In Japan there are two different types of bathhouses.

  1. Sentō
  2. Onsen

There isn’t much difference between the two, but the biggest difference is that a Sentō is simply a public bathhouse filled with pools of heated tap water, and an Onsen has both heated tap water as well as natural hot springs. Sentōs are becoming more and more rare, although there are still about 6,000 left in the entire country.

Because I was completely terrified leading up to our team trip to the Onsen, here are five steps to surviving your next Onsen experience:

1. Before you arrive at the Onsen:

Pack a bag with a hand towel and a whole lot of confidence because that’s all you’re going to need. Accept the fact that you will be naked in front of other people, and you will get yelled at if you try and wear a bathing suit.

2. Once you arrive, take off your shoes and prepare yourself for what’s to come:

The Onsen that we went to had a huge lobby area, and a large room with lockers to store your shoes, as well as any big bags that you don’t want to take with you into the locker rooms.

From there, we checked in at the front desk (our group had paid in advance), and then our group parted ways and went to our respective changing rooms.

3. Find a locker and get naked:

Inside the changing rooms, there are rows of lockers to store your clothes. Once you pick one, it’s time to face reality and take off your clothes. All of them.

I would also recommend drinking a few cups of water so that you don’t get dehydrated.

4. Grab your hand towel and go take a shower:

From the changing room, you enter into a shower area. In the shower area there is a long line of showering stations equipped with a plastic bath stool to sit on, a mirror, shampoo & conditioner, and disposable combs.

Feel free to take as long a shower as you want, and use as much shampoo and conditioner as your heart desires. This is also a perfect time for you to get a little more comfortable with your nakedness.

5. Soak in the hot springs:

Once you are showered up, it’s time to enter into the hot springs.

Relax. Soak up every moment. Go in the sauna. Use the special salt scrub that makes your skin as soft as a baby’s bottom. Take another shower. Go back in the hot springs. Repeat.

The Onsen that we visited also had a public pool (no nakedness here), and we split up our two hour time slot between the pool and the hot springs. I’m glad that we had that option, and I don’t think I would have been able to spend two whole hours in the warm water.

Other things to remember:

  • Go to the bathroom before entering the hot springs.
  • Long hair should be tied up.
  • Jewelry, accessories, watches, and glasses should be taken off so that they won’t be discolored by the minerals in the water.
  • Do not wear shoes into the changing area.
  • The male entrance is often marked with this character: “男” and the female entrance is marked with this character: “女”
  • Drink water before and after soaking in the hot springs.
  • Photography/video is not allowed in most baths.
  • Do not swim in the baths.
  • If you have tattoos, check to see if the Onsen allows them – many do not.
  • Once you enter a bath, keep your hand towel on top of your head – don’t submerge it in the water.

Have you been to an Onsen? What were your thoughts? What else would you add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!

  • LeenCindy Peterson

    I’m curious about why you should keep the towel on your head and not submerge, and was surprised about the no tattoos. This is fascinating! Love you guys!!

    • Kelly Anderson

      I’ve tried to find an explanation as to why you can’t submerge your towel, but from what I can tell, I think it’s because they want to keep the water as pure and clean as possible.

      We recently went to an onsen town, and it was much different from this experience! I’ll have to write about it soon – I actually forgot about this post because I wrote it so long ago! haha

      Love you too!