How To...Onsen

When my husband and I first came to Japan, we asked a few local friends and colleagues for ideas of things to do. With striking frequency, they recommended we MUST visit an onsen.
So, what are onsen? We were told onsen are communal hot spring baths to be enjoyed naked, allowing the natural minerals of the waters help relax and unwind your muscles and mind. Except we switched off after hearing ‘communal’ and ‘naked’. Like many Brits, we’re a little prudish when it comes to nudity, and despite most onsen being gender segregated…we remained prudish.
Onsen -- Photo from Oedo Onsen Monogatari
Sadly, because of this, months passed before we saw what all the fuss was about. Now, most trips away involve some kind of onsen, and if I haven’t managed to onsen for a while, my body starts craving those warm waters.
Don’t be like me. When you come to Japan – take the plunge.
Below is a quick guide of ‘how to’ onsen:
Onsen "how-to" -- from Flickr cc by Ryan McBride
1.     If you have a tattoo (that can’t be covered with a plaster), onsen are not for you. Tattoos are usually forbidden because of a cultural association with criminals or gangsters. This strict policy often applies to gyms, swimming pools and beaches, too. However, the Japan Tourism Agency has asked onsen operators to consider relaxing the rule for international tourists, so things may change in the future.
2.     Towels are usually provided -- one large bath towel, and one smaller towel. The smaller towel is used to wash with outside the pool or is placed on your head while bathing. Don’t put the towel in the water or you will be ‘dirtying’ the natural minerals.
3.     Generally speaking, no clothes, underwear or swimwear are allowed past the changing rooms.
4.     After undressing, wash thoroughly before getting into the pool. Entering the onsen either dirty or without rinsing off is a huge no-no. You'll see banks of showers with a small plastic or wooden stool and a collection of toiletries.
5.     Make yourself comfortable and let the natural minerals do their work. Onsens aren’t for swimming. Or splashing. Just sit quietly and enjoy some ‘me-time’.
6.     After bathing, take another shower. Depending on the size and quality of the onsen, various types of toiletries and facilities are provided in the changing rooms. Hairdryers, skin creams and toothbrushes are pretty ubiquitous. If you’re lucky, you may find a massage chair or two.
Outdoor onsen -- Photo from Oedo Onsen Monogatari
The Japanese claim that onsen minerals have healing properties, from improving the condition of your skin to increasing your metabolism, boosting blood circulation and easing muscle aches. I can vouch for most of these. After two days of twice-a-day bathing when at a ryokan (Japanese inn), my stomach is flatter, my skin is visibly more glowing, and I just feel healthier. 
Convinced yet?
If you’re curious to try onsen yourself, but don’t want to venture too far from the capital, then read on for my top picks in the Tokyo area:
1.     Oedo Onsen Monogatari, Odaiba
Outdoor footbath -- Photo from Oedo Onsen Monogatari
More of an onsen complex than a traditional facility, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is one of the most extensive in Tokyo.
Pick out your favourite yukata (cotton robe) to wear, and enter the communal eating, drinking, shopping and gaming area. You can wile away an hour or two here, trying out a range of foods (the crepes are great!), or play electronic or traditional fairground games.
From this communal area, you split into male and female bathing. Indoors, you’ll find many baths, plus a sauna. Outdoors, you'll find three large baths, plus individual wooden tubs for your own private dunk.
For a non-naked option, head to the outdoor communal footbath. Set in a pretty courtyard, not only can you soak your feet, but you can also enjoy a mini foot massage by walking across the various pebbled pathways. (Be warned, some of these can be painful!) If you’re so inclined, pay a small fee for your feet to be nibbled by fish, or relax in the rock sauna.
Elsewhere you’ll find massage and reflexology facilities, plus a large massage chair area (free of charge). 
2.     Utsukushi no Yu Onsen, Takaido
Onsen Jacuzzi -- Photo from Utsukushi no Yu Onsen
Tucked away in a small suburb of Tokyo, around 20 minutes from Shinjuku and Shibuya stations, is Utsukushi no Yu Onsen. Meaning "beautiful" in Japanese, Utsukushi is exactly that. This onsen is a budget option (¥900), immaculately clean and popular with locals. Utsukushi is also just about the right size, with good options for indoor and outdoor bathing. The onsen has a couple of saunas and retains an authentic feel. Utsukushi is about as close as you’ll get to those hot springs found in ryokans or traditional resorts.
And the Jacuzzi baths are HEAVENLY. 
You need to pay for your bath using the vending machine. Instructions are in Japanese but just ask the reception desk staff for help; they all speak good English. Towels are not provided but can be rented (¥110 for large towels, ¥60 for small). Children under ten are only allowed in on weekends.
3.     Heiwajima Big Fun, Ota-ku
Onsen photo by Yuan Huang
If you’re flying in or out of Haneda, then this onsen is practically next door. Heiwajima Big Fun even offers a free shuttle to transport you and your luggage if needed.
Heiwajima Big Fun is open 24 hours. This onsen is a great option to kill a few hours if your flight is at an anti-social time of day. Aside from bathing, you'll find a large relaxation area, tatami (bamboo mat)rooms to nap in, as well as a pretty decent restaurant. The pools themselves are nice and varied, with different temperatures offered, including an icy cold plunge pool (if you’re brave enough!) Don’t be alarmed that some of the pools look a bit brown, that colour is just the natural minerals at work. 
A new spa pool just opened too. At this pool, you can recline on seats, enjoy water flowing over your back and watch Japanese TV.
Outdoor bath -- Photo from 
I could write a whole post about the wonders of climbing Mount Takao, so I hope you have it on your itinerary. If you do, why not enjoy a post-hike soak in this little gem, accessible from within Takaosanguchi Station?
This onsen is popular so can get busy at weekends, but the waters here are incredible. I’ve often heard onsen water described as ‘silky’, but this onsen's water truly is.
The water itself is almost thick with minerals, and your skin….well, you have to experience it. My skin has never felt softer. The outdoor baths are extensive, with four options including a seated pool which soothes your feet while water runs down your back. Indoors you’ll find a couple more baths, plus a carbonated pool with tiny microbubbles. Another option is the sauna.
Again, you need to use a vending machine to enter, but an English language option is available. Access to all facilities is ¥1000 plus ¥250 for towels.
So now you know how to onsen, why to onsen and where to onsen…what’s stopping you? Trust me, onsens won't disappoint!

Check out this list of Tokyo Onsen, download and create your own trip!

Sally Erith