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The Best Of Hong Kong
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By Iris Law | May 4th, 2016
Have you ever met someone who didn’t love a Japanese onsen? Sure, they can be a bit confusing, but once you figure out the system it’s nothing but relaxation. We’ve got six tips for proper Japanese onsen etiquette, plus a little primer so you know what you’re getting into.

Need to know

Send your thank you cards to Mother Nature, who’s responsible for these amazing baths. Essentially formed by a chain of volcanoes, Japan is sitting on top of active geothermal plates with an abundance of natural hot spring water oozing out from the earth’s surface.

This natural occurrence has given rise to thousands of onsen ryokans across Japan — some indoors, some outdoors, and most maintained at 40-45ºC. Aside from being a relaxing way to unwind, the steamy water also contains high levels of minerals that are believed to have positive health benefits.

Find the right changing room

Unless a stream of men and women show you the way, it’s not always clear which changing room is correct. Both entrances display Noren curtains, but the color will give it away: red for women, blue for men.

But wait, the Noren curtain color seemed to have switched overnight? Okay, now it gets a little complicated. Some ryokans alternate the male and female changing rooms throughout the day, because each onsen may offer a different view. Pay attention to the color of curtain before entering, as it should be updated accordingly.

In some areas of Japan especially those with a longer onsen history, mixed gender baths still exist but they’re much less common.

Japanese onsen
And behind Door No. 2?

Shower before entering

This is kind of a no-brainer, but just in case you weren’t sure, onsens are for soaking — not washing. Remove your clothes or yukata (Japanese kimono-like bathrobe) and leave them in the basket or locker in the changing area.

Shower thoroughly in the daiyokujou (communal shower area) where soap and shampoo are provided. Most bathrooms have wooden stools for you to sit and shower, and a wooden bucket.

No tattoos allowed

Most ryokans do not allow people with tattoos to enter onsens. So if you’re tatted up, unfortunately, you’re not usually welcome to enjoy the public baths. However, many ryokans have private onsens that can be reserved in advance, or you can even stay in a ryokan with an in-room onsen.

Japanese onsen
An outdoor retreat in Japan

Take it all off

Don’t be shy! Go naked — it’s tradition, after all. Japan has a long history of onsen culture, and no one will think twice about it. If you are not 100 percent comfortable, you can use the small towel provided by the ryokan to cover your body while walking around the bathing area. But do not bring the towel into the water with you — submerging the towel is frowned upon, although you can wear it on your head if you wish.

When it comes time to put your yukata back on, be sure to wear it with the left side over the right. Wearing it the other way around (right over left) means you’re dressing a dead body for a funeral — don’t make that morbid mistake!

Mind your manners

In Japan, it’s all about manners. People in Japan visit onsens to relax, recuperate and enjoy themselves. Speaking too loudly with your friends is disturbing, as is jumping into an onsen, splashing, running around or treating it like your own personal lap pool. If you want to onsen properly, use the time to quietly unwind.

Japanese onsen
Some like it hot

Take your time

After the soothing and relaxing soak, there is no need to shower again — you actually may want to leave the natural minerals on your body overnight. The duration of the bath is normally less than 15 minutes, or you can take a short rest before going in for a second round. Some veterans will stay in for an hour or more!

However, if you have health conditions such as high blood pressure or heart disease, you may want to keep an eye on the time. After soaking, drink a glass or two of water to stay hydrated — and, no, sake doesn’t count!