Japan is a destination that delivers a thrilling dose of culture shock. A bucket-list travel planner is essential for navigating the language, food, and complex social customs. Exclusive Resorts has executed an 11-day Once-in-a-Lifetime Journey that explores three distinct prefectures: the dynamic cities of Tokyo and Kyoto and the trapped-in-time mountain town of Hakone. The latter is steeped in tradition and famed for its onsens, or natural hot springs. “Onsen culture stretches back thousands of years in Japan,” says Brett Plotz, the designated Journey Director. “There is even evidence that onsens in Japan were active 3,000 years ago, putting them even earlier than the Romans with their baths.” Here, Plotz shares a quick tutorial on the Japanese onsen tradition to ensure you have the most memorable travel experience while soaking in the springs of Hakone.
HOW IS JAPANESE ONSEN DIFFERENT FROM A NATURAL HOT SPRING YOU MIGHT FIND IN THE U.S.?
Japanese onsen are actually strictly defined. An onsen must be at least be 77 degrees Fahrenheit and must have 19 types of minerals in the water. A big reason onsen are held in higher esteem in Japan is because the water itself is healing due to its mineral content.
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU SOAK?
It’s not like a hot tub where you can sit for long periods of time. Most people soak for a few minutes to 15 minutes at most and they’ll get out of the hot water to cool off and take in the views outside, then get back in for a bit more.
WHAT IS THE ETIQUETTE OF ONSEN BATHING?
Many visitors are wary of visiting onsen because the etiquette seems intimidating but it’s actually not too complicated.
BIRTHDAY SUITS ONLY
It's ok to feel nervous before your first onsen experience. But, once you dare to bare, it really doesn’t take long to get used to it and when you see that the Japanese don’t bat an eyelid, you’ll soon lose your self-consciousness.
SHOWER BEFORE YOU BATHE
To the Japanese, the Western practice of washing yourself in the bath is pretty gross. Even when bathing in the privacy of their own home, the Japanese always clean themselves under the shower before having a soak in the bath. This is even more important when you’re visiting a communal onsen so you can keep the water as clean as possible.
Every onsen has a row of showers around the outside of the bath and you are expected to sit down on one of the stools provided while you wash. It’s considered bad manners to stand up while you wash, as you might splash one of the people next to you. Remember to rinse thoroughly so as not to get soap in the bathwater.
At any onsen, you will either be provided with a small and a large towel, or there will be some available to rent. The large towel is for drying yourself and should be left in the changing room, while the small towel is for washing and can be taken into the bathing area. You can take your small towel into the bath with you — many people put them on their heads — but mustn’t go in the water.
HAIR & HEAD
If you have long hair, always remember to bring a hairband or to wrap your hair in a small towel. Even if you’ve just washed your hair under the shower it shouldn’t go in the onsen water.
Experience a traditional onsen during part of Exclusive Resorts' new 2023 Journey, Japan: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone.
Learn trip dates, in-depth itinerary details, and costs with the official OIAL Journeys announcement on March 16, 2022. Reservation requests will be accepted from March 16 – 29, 2022.
Learn more about our 2023 Once-in-a-Lifetime Journeys and their not-to-be-missed moments here.