Japanese Onsens on the Kumano Kodo

Whether for health, recovery or recreation Japan’s communal onsen baths are a feature that ranges between fascination to delight for many westerners visiting the country and are a popular feature of the culture of Japan. For skiers and snowboarders exploring the alpine regions and ski resorts of Japan there’s arguably no greater way to recover the body and muscles from a day on the slopes than soaking in landscaped Japanese onsen indoor or outdoor. For walkers and hikers along the Kumano Kodo the onsens offer the same benefit, relaxation and recovery. 

Now firstly, what onsens are is hot communal baths, sometimes circulating hot mineral rich water from natural springs and sometimes it’s just hot water, but just as importantly is what onsens are not. Onsens are not all the same. They range from weird little three-quarter bath tubs in a shared bathroom (ignore those ones as they’re not the onsen experience we want to discuss or recommend to you), ranging through to landscaped environments, indoor and outdoor. Sometimes with stunning views up into, down or across mountains (albeit if you look past the naked person next to you). Possibly the fact they’re not all the same is a good reason you’re reading this on the Hiking Trails website where we can help guide you and your booking towards the nicer onsens of the Kumano Kodo walk. 

You’ve probably heard that the Japanese onsen is to be enjoyed naked. That may or may not shock or scare you, and you may or may not have inhibitions around this. But it is the bit we’ve all heard, and it’s true.

How to use a Japanese bath

So here are a few simple tips and common rules to help you navigate your first couple of onsen experiences and to help you know what to expect and what is often (not always as local and house rules do sometimes apply) expected of you;

  1. The onsens are separated into Male and Female baths and private bath rooms. The male bathroom will often have blue entry curtains and the female bathroom red entry curtains.
  2. As I said in the intro, the onsens in Japan are traditionally experienced naked. You’ve got to leave your inhibitions at the door
  3. If the onsen is attached or within your lodging its tradition to wear the slippers and kimono (Japanese gown for wearing indoors) from your room to the onsen
  4. The onsen may be indoor, outdoor or have an indoor-outdoor set-up (they’re the best type)
  5. Either from your room or from within the onsen area there’ll be a supply of drying / modesty towels available for you
  6. Either within the room of the onsen or attached to it there’ll be an area to leave your slippers and kimono, there’ll often be shelves or lockers
  7. Similarly within the onsen room there’ll be low showers, stalls, mirrors, and soap and shampoo for you to use
  8. It’s expected by other onsen users that you’ll utilise these facilities to give yourself a good wash before entering the onsen
  9. You can generally take the towel / modesty cloth with you as you navigate to and from the bath
  10. Then it’s in to the bath, soak and enjoy. Most users will also have a shower on the way out – probably a good idea.

And hopefully this is assumed, but it’s generally not polite to stare, chances are some of the other users are feeling a little awkward also.

Finally, most onsen have house rules for using the facility written up somewhere around the entry, so it’s worth a read to ensure you don’t offend any other users, for example some onsen highlight that they’d prefer you not use the onsen if you have tattoos. 

A word of warning… Be careful not to overheat beyond a healthy limit within the baths. If you have any conditions that may not love this experience then it may be worth talking to your GP before your trip.