An onsen ryokan (spa) experience in Japan is an opportunity to take a deep dive into an ancient cultural tradition. It is a uniquely Japanese phenomenon like pod or capsule hotels, Japanese toilets, manga comics and Buddhist temple stays.
What is an onsen?
Exactly what IS a Japanese onsen ryokan, anyway? An onsen is an all natural hot spring Japanese bathhouse. It can be anywhere as long as it is fed by a natural hot spring. Due to Japan’s unique volcano-laden topography, there are over 20,000 onsen in Japan.
A ryokan is a type of inn accommodation found only in Japan and has a tradition of over 1000 years. They are traditional guest houses offering typical Japanese features like washitsu, (tatami-matted rooms) the comfortable, cotton robes known as yukatas and the amazing meals prepared with natural, locally sourced ingredients.
When a traditional Japanese ryokan also has an onsen it is called an onsen ryokan. Some onsen ryokans have private onsens, which may even be inside guestrooms. Imagine that!
Communal bathing in Japan has an age-old tradition. Before there were bathing facilities in homes, people went to a local public bath house to soak away the days dirt and stress. The public baths remained even after private indoor baths became the norm. Over time they evolved transforming a Japanese public bath into the onsen spa experience we know today.
Along with this evolution came a set of onsen rules and etiquette governing the “how to onsen” experience. Visit a Japanese onsen ryokan today and you’ll become familiar with the very specific set of onsen etiquette required for enjoying your stay there. Not only do you not want to look clueless as you go about the ryokan, but you also want to maximize your visit.The Japanese culture fascinates me: the food, the dress, the manners and the traditions. It's the travel experience that has moved me the most. Roman Coppola Click To Tweet
The Japanese onsen ryokan experience
This Japanese onsen guide was created after speaking with onsen staff and hearing their stories about episodes of cultural confusion experienced by their non-Japanese guests.
Japanese onsen etiquette
Follow these onsen rules to make sure you do yourself proud when visiting an onsen ryokan.
Always take off your shoes before entering. Wearing your shoes is not an option, nor is it OK to wear shoes only sometimes or in certain parts of the ryokan. Upon entering the ryokan remove your shoes and put on the provided slippers. Go to your room with your slippers, but remove them when you enter your room. In your room, you can be barefoot or in your stocking feet.
Don’t be surprised if your pillow looks and feels like a mini bean bag. They’re supposed to be that way. Pillows will generally be harder than what you are used to in the west. Don’t ask for different or fluffier pillows. Just roll with it.
Understand that the sleeping arrangements are on the floor. You will be provided with very comfortable futons which are laid out on the tatami mats at night and stored away during the day. Don’t ask for the “western room.” The whole point of an onsen ryokan is the traditional Japanese spa experience.
Wear your yukata or Japanese robe which will be provided. These are comfortable and beautiful cotton robes. You are free to wear them at all times in the ryokan although is not mandatory. You can wear your western clothes too, just don’t wear both at once, like your yukata as a top accompanied by pants. I mean, you CAN, but you’ll look silly and attract unwanted stares.I think that the Japanese culture is one of the very few cultures left that is its own entity. They're just so traditional and so specific in their ways. It's kind of untouched, it's not Westernized. Toni Collette Click To Tweet
A highlight of a onsen ryokan experience is the meal. A multi-course Japanese style haute cuisine dinner is called a kaiseki ryori. A good ryokan will aim to emulate this traditional kaiseki ryori which can involve as many as 20 dishes. The ingredients will tend to be seasonal, locally sourced and always fresh. Cooking methods and preparation will take hours. The different dishes must be presented in a certain way and served at precise temperatures for optimal visual appeal and taste. The presentation is exquisite. Like they say, the Japanese eat with their eyes.
For this reason, the ryokan asks that you arrive for dinner at very specific times and many will ask that you pay for the meal upfront. If you are late for the meal or miss it, they can’t really pack it into plastic containers for later use. It’s pretty much ruined. Generally, the ryokan will provide both breakfast and dinner with both meals involving all the multi-course, elaborate drama. These delicious meals are served by gracious and attentive staff either in your room or in a public dining area. This is truly a unique and delightful ryokan experience.
Bathing and soaking in an onsen is relaxing and fun. It also seems to be the situation that causes the most confusion with non-Japanese. The first rule is don’t mistake the koi pond for the onsen or public bath. If you see a pretty pond with vegetation and large fish, don’t step inside, it is not the onsen. The ladies at one of the ryokan I visited asked me to mention this to my readers. The fact that they made this request at all conjures up all sorts of situations. I prefer to think they were joking.
The correct way to enjoy an onsen ryokan
- Many onsen ryokan offer both public and private baths. Some just have public baths with separate bathing times for men and women. If a different time is more convenient for you and they are not busy, they will change the bath times to accommodate you.
- You go into a small bathing room first where you wash and rinse yourself before you go into the onsen. Generally, there are little stools where you sit and soap up, and shower hoses where you rinse. The onsen is not meant for bathing, only for relaxing and soaking. So, don’t get in with a bar of soap and shampoo and start scrubbing. You should be squeaky clean before you get into the onsen.
- Do not swim or splash. Again, it’s just for soaking.
- Throughout this process, you should be naked. Don’t show up in a bathing suit or in your underwear. Everyone else is naked, so you would really stand out if you have any clothing at all. Bathers are going about their business, and nobody is paying attention to you. Do likewise.
- It is acceptable to bring a washcloth into the onsen to wipe your brow from the heat. However, the cloth must never touch the water or be left on the edge of the bath. Instead, you should carry it folded on your head.
- This is not a time for socializing. People expect quiet in an onsen and to be left to their own thoughts. Don’t turn to a fellow bather and start discussing the weather or how much you enjoy Japanese food. Just pretend that others are not even there.
- Needless to say, don’t bring a camera in with you and start snapping photos…for obvious reasons.
- If you have tattoos, it’s possible you won’t be allowed into an onsen. Or, you may be asked to cover your tattoos with tape provided by the onsen. In Japan, tattoos are associated with criminal gangs.
Top reasons to stay at an onsen ryokan
It’s good for your health. Natural hot springs are reputed to possess therapeutic properties and contribute to healthy skin.
“Taking the waters” at hot springs is an age-old tradition around the world. It’s just that the Japanese have elevated the practice to an art form. I can’t speak to the health claims, but relaxing in a hot tub in a beautiful setting is delightful.
Experience a sense of becoming one with nature. Many onsen ryokan are situated in the midst of beautiful natural scenery. Some are open air baths called “rotenburo” used all year round. Soaking in a natural hot spring in the open air surrounded by nature is a unique experience that cleanses the body as well as the soul.
The amazing food. The meals at a ryokan are made with the freshest, high quality ingredients accenting the natural flavors. Many refer to these meals as “food art.”
The ambiance. Some still-operational ryokan have existed for centuries. In fact, there are several that have been designated cultural heritage sites. The ryokan emphasizes a harmony between people and nature and its elements, rooms, gardens, onsen and food. All designed to encourage relaxation and serenity. Top that off with the traditional, heartfelt, gracious Japanese service and you won’t want to leave.
Enjoy yourself and take it all in. Absorb this beautiful culture, food, atmosphere and other cool things in Japan. A traditional Japanese onsen ryokan experience will stay with you for a long time.
Don’t forget to get your Japan Rail Pass, the single most efficient way to travel all over Japan.I believe it is no secret that I like Japan very much - Japanese culture, sport, including judo, but it will not offend anyone if I say that I like Russia even more. Vladimir Putin Click To Tweet
Want to know more about Japan, its culture and etiquette? Check out these guides:
Do you think you would enjoy the onsen ryokan experience? Let us know in the comments.
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