When you visit Japan, you might want to go to a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot spring), but there are quite a few rules and manners you need to know. Let’s see the onsen etiquette in Japan and reasons behind each rule.
Take everything off before going into the bathroom. You need to be naked.
I think this is already known worldwide, but you have to bathe naked in Japanese bathing facilities unless otherwise specified. The biggest reason for this is to keep the bathtub clean.
You have to wash your body before bathing because everyone shares the same bathtub, but wearing anything disables it.
Another reason is that clothes (including swimsuit) are not very clean. To be more precise, the unwashed body underneath it is not clean.
Wash your body before bathing
In Western spas, you bathe in your swimsuit before washing your body, and only wash when you are done. But in Japan, you must wash your body before bathing. As I mentioned in the previous section, people share the bathtub, so you need to keep it clean. In order to keep the bathtub clean, you need to wash your body first.
If you go in the bathtub before washing your body, you will be frowned upon by local people. Some of them might even wash their body again leave the bathroom because they don’t want to have unclean person in the same bathtub (but usually they don’t say anything to strangers directly).
Take a small towel to the bathing area and dry your body before going back to the undressing room
Most Japanese bathing facilities lend or sell a set of two towels, one large and one small at the casher. The large towel is to dry your body in the undressing room after you leave the bathroom, and the small one should be brought into the bathroom. Why a towel to the bathroom? Well, it should be used to wipe your sweat or drops on your body while bathing. You can put it on a shelf in the bathroom, but most people keep it with them.
And the most important thing is that you have to wipe your body before going back to the undressing room. You don’t have to completely dry your body, but quickly wipe yourself until no water is dripping. Don’t ask questions like “is the large towel necessary if you dry your body with the small towel?” … I have the exact same question for all these years in Japan, but that’s the rule. The floor gets dirty if you walk around with wet body, so it makes sense anyway.
Don’t swim or stir water in the bathtub
Japanese baths are not swimming pools. Don’t swim in the bathtub or stir water. There are no clear reasons for this, but it’s probably because it would be disturbing if somebody stirred water violently while others were relaxed in the bath. Japanese baths are relaxing facilities and not amusement parks.
Don’t put your towel or your hair in the water
As I mentioned in the above “Wash your body before bathing” section, Japanese baths are kept very clean. People feel that putting hair (whether it’s washed or not) or towel in the bathtub is unclean. I’m not saying that your hair is not clean, but it’s something like having hair in your food. If a restaurant serves a meal with hair, you would probably ask them to change it, wouldn’t you? The Japanese people don’t like others putting their hair in the water because it feels somewhat unclean. If your hair is long, tie it up before bathing.
Don’t brush your teeth in the bathroom
Brushing your teeth in the bathroom, no matter how it’s outside of the bathtub or not, is considered ill-mannered. Doesn’t matter if you spit the toothpaste outside of the bathtub, don’t brush your teeth anywhere in the bathroom (well, spitting IN the bathtub would be out of question so don’t even think about it).
Don’t run in the bathroom
This is similar to why you shouldn’t swim in the bathtub, but you shouldn’t run in the bathing area because the Japanese baths are for people to relax. If you somebody is running making noise, people will be disturbed. The level of “disturbing” differs from culture to culture I think, but remember that Japanese people are VERY quiet (I wrote it in bold capital letters because they ARE quiet). Even if you think your noises are acceptable, they might not for the Japanese. It’s dangerous to run on a wet floor anyway.
Don’t wash your body or hair in the bath tub
Again, Japanese bathtubs are very clean. Don’t ever wash your body or hair inside the bathtub because the water will get dirty with the scurf. Imagine using a Western bathtub after a stranger washed his/her body without changing the water. You would never reuse the water with lots of soap and even scurf, would you? The Japanese share the bathtub water with complete strangers, so you need to keep it clean.
Don’t take away amenities
Certain people take home soap bottles from public baths, but they are not for you to take away for free. Of course you are free to use them, but taking away the entire bottles is a different story. Taking away such equipment is considered theft. You can take away small bottles of lotions or soaps in your hotel room in general, but large soap/shampoo bottles are equipment of the facility and you shouldn’t take them away. I didn’t expect that I would need to explain such a common thing, but I hear that some people out there actually take away attached equipment…
Wash the bath stool after use
There are usually small stools in the bathing area. Make sure to wash it after use in consideration for the person that will use it next. It’s not a must and some Japanese don’t do this, but it’s like closing the toilet lid after use. The staff doesn’t clean the equipment every time someone uses it, so cleaning it after use is a good manner. If everyone keeps pouring soap and hair and leaves them just as they are after use, the entire bathing area might get dirty after a while. You don’t have to clean the entire stool, but just quickly wipe where you sat with soap and wash it away before you leave.
You are encouraged to pour tap water into your body after bathing
This is more like a recommendation and whether you should do this depends on the onsen you bathe in, but many onsen have strong compounds or colors and it is better to wash them away before you put on your clothes. Usually there is a small bath called “kakeyu” (pouring water) near the exit of the bathroom, so make sure to pour the water in it into your body. At some onsen however, you are NOT encouraged to wash away the onsen water before you leave the bathroom because the compounds of the onsen are good for your skin and better kept. Check with the staff if you should or shouldn’t pour fresh water after bathing. For public baths that use tap water, I would recommend that you pour water because the bathtubs contains some dirt even though they are kept clean.
Most onsen and bathing facilities don’t accept customers with tattoos
Last but not least, there is another rule in Japanese bathing facilities. If you have a tattoo(s), most probably the facility will not allow you in.
This is completely a culture stuff and there is no theoretical reason behind it (as far as I know), but most bathing facilities in Japan, whether it’s onsen or sento, don’t allow you in if you have a tattoo because tattoos are considered taboo in Japan. This is partly because some people that belong to not quite legal organizations have tattoos and many bathing facilities ban those people.
I’m not sure what happens if you have a tattoo under your clothes and nobody notices it before you actually go in the bathing area naked but once you get noticed, you might be asked to get out. I’m sorry for those who have tattoos as a part of their traditions, but this is how tattoos are considered in Japan.
However, some recent bathing facilities show understanding on traditional tattoos. If you have such tattoos, you might want to ask them if you would be allowed in. Even if you have a “fashion tattoo” and still want to go to a public bathing facility in Japan, you can search for tattoo-friendly facilities because there seem to be some out there. If you are not sure if a specific bathing facility you want to go to is tattoo-friendly, ask them in advance. Please at least keep in mind that this is far more serious matter than washing your body before bathing. While washing your body is a rule, this is a taboo.
You can find tattoo friendly facilities here:
Reading this article, you might have learned that Japanese people are very clean and they ask others for the same. The onsen etiquette in Japan might sound peculiar to non-Japanese people, but there are reasons behind each rule and I hope every tourist respects it.
Learn more etiquette in Japan
- Driving rules in Japan
- Bicycle rules in Japan
- Unwritten Japanese private lodging rules and etiquette
- Japanese table etiquette
- Western don’ts that are widely accepted in Japan