Since both myself and LP have talked about finding local onsen as well as finding semi-private baths, it seems only fitting that we cover some ground rules for onsen bathing.
As both former member of my university's onsen club (yes, that is a real club) and a person who generally enjoys being lazy, I feel that I am fairly well qualified to speak on the peculiarities of onsen etiquette.
Generally speaking, the time honored tradition of hot spring bathing involves some very specific rules. However, in my own experience there are a few "unwritten rules" as well. Let's take a look...
The Code of the Onsen
These rules apply to onsen of all shapes and sizes.
- Bathe Before Entering- Even if the onsen in question does not have a proper shower, you absolutely must rinse off before entering the bath. Most proper onsen will have a sit-down shower area complete with shampoo and body wash. However, some older 100 yen onsen may only have a bath. In this case, you must use water from a faucet or scoop up water from the bath and rinse yourself. Entering the onsen (or any Japanese bath, for that matter) is the ultimate bathing faux pas.
- No Towel Dipping- If you bring a hand towel to wash yourself while showering, make sure you don't dip it in the bath water. Most onsen have a shelf where you can stash your stuff if you worry about losing your towel, but most people just fold it up and put it on their head.
- No Splashing- Even the biggest of the big boned are expected to enter the onsen with grace. Flopping down in the onsen and making a big splash is a definite no-no. Of course, swimming is also off limits. However, some onsen have an area especially for taiso (体操) or aerobics that old folks in Japan seem to love. Expect to see a lot of geriatrics doing stretches in the tub.
- Say It, Don't Spray it- When showering off before or after entering the onsen, make sure to watch where your shower water is going. Most onsen have a sit-down style rinse off area complete with a detached shower head. To make matters worse, there is usually a row of showers behind you, making it very easy to accidently spray passers by and fellow onsen goers. So be curtious and watch where you spray.
- Don't Be a Hot Mess- Many onsen have sauna and steam baths to complement the regular bathing experience. If you go into a sauna and decide to go back in for a second dip, make sure you quickly de-sweatify yourself in the shower area before reentering the onsen.
- Tattoos are a Definite "Maybe"- It is true that Japan is not very tattoo friendly, mainly thanks to the connotation of "tattoo" with "gangster." Most onsen will have signs to the effect of "no tattoos" (irezumi kinshi 入れ墨禁止) or something similar. However, I have been to the onsen with fellow tattoo wearing foriegners and I have heard nary a peep from the staff. Granted, the said tattoos were monochrom and relatively unremarkable in size. I have heard of people with large color tattoos (i.e. like the ones traditionally found on Japanese gangsters) getting thrown out of places like gyms. If your tattoo is not too crazy and, most importantly, no one complains then you should be in the clear.
- Avoid Ledge Sitting- My onsen club higher-up once told me that he was taken to task by an old guy for sitting on the ledge of an onsen and dangling his legs in. Personally, I have never seen this happen but I could see how it would be a problem as many 100 yen onsen are basically just concrete tubs with very little room to move around. Most proper onsen have an underwater step that you can use as a proper seat before totally submerging.
- Don't Be a Dripper- Most onsen changing rooms have flaxen tatami mat floors. Therefore, it is a good idea to drip dry yourself before charging into the the changing area. Most bath houses have a small mat area before the actual tatami changing room when you can safely dry off. However, I have seen plenty of old folks walk into the changing room dripping wet only to have the onsen staff clean up after them.