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Onsen - How To Get It Right

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

Onset (traditional Japanese bath) was high on our list of things to do in Japan, and for our first night in Nara, Onset was set for our Onsen debut.

Unfortunately, the Onsen at our hotel was under construction so no entrance. Bummer.

No worries however, and we found a piublic Onsen in Nara, Yarara No Yu Onsen. I had a look at the website for a closer look at the pictures, as it's all in Japanese.

I was a bit skeptical about this place at first, but we got a taxi there as it was getting late and entering it didn’t look like much. We didn’t bring anything to the Onsen, as that was the information we got at our hotel. The whole Onsen experience felt a bit like unknown territory.

The Onsen etiquette and the nudity all seemed to baffle some of us a bit. Onsens are usually divided by gender, which meant that Martin and the boys went together, and I was on my own. When we came out – one hour apart – it seemed that our experiences had been a bit different.

Yarara No Yu Onsen, Nara

How do you do Onsen?

We rented towels at the entrance, which came in a set with a towel and a mini towel. The big towel is for after the Onsen and can be left with your clothes. The mini towel you bring with you into the actual Onsen. This was the experience I had in the ladies’ Onsen:

After undressing completely and leaving your things in a closet, you go into the Onsen area with your mini towel. First you get yourself a super low mini stool, sit down and wash yourself thoroughly. Now, personally, I felt I was clean after 3-4 minutes, having washed my body and my hair… but all the other ladies sitting there, were still on to their washing on the tiny stool, using the mini towel, washing and scrubbing until they were white with foam and visibly had soap from head to toe.

I did my very best to get the foam show going, but I wasn’t successful in the way that my fellow-Onsen-goers were. In the end I was getting worried that my skin would dry out completely from washing so much, and I was positive there was not a single dead cell of skin on my body – ANYWHERE!!!!

I’ve never washed and scrubbed for this long before. When the first woman seemed to be making her way over to the actual baths, I was the first one to follow – as clean as I will ever get after 10 minutes of scrubbing.

Another reason why I hadn’t left the cleaning area was, honestly, because I wasn’t sure where to go and which bath to begin with. None of the ladies seemed very approachable there in their birthday suits very focused on their cleaning of themselves, or maybe it was me being a bit uncomfortable and insecure, clearly looking different from everyone else as a tall European on a 40 cm low stool.


Following an elderly lady from the cleaning area we were apparently heading for the 37 degree C bath first. It turned out that the mini towel you carry around serves many purposes: it’s for scrubbing, washing but also wiping sweat off your head in the hot baths, and for holding up over your lower body parts when walking.

When in the baths you fold the mini towel neatly and put up on your head. Now, I had put my hair up, as signs had clearly indicated this was the right hair due for Onsen if having long hair, so it was impossible to balance the towel my head. And, quite honestly, I felt pretty silly sitting like that trying to relax.

Hot and Cold Baths

Having sat in the 37-degree bath for a while, I was waiting for someone else to get out and move on to the next. I wanted to do it this right, and I imagined there was a certain order to go into the different baths in.

There clearly wasn’t, as the other women were now each going into different baths. I was hot, so I went for the 19-degree cold water, and it was lovely to cooled off. Then I went for the 42 degree C bath. I managed to stay there for max. 2 minutes, then I was done and too hot.

They say that you are supposed to stay until you are comfortable, but I’ve never been good with that hot water. Instead I went for a light water massage in a bath I could lie down in. I didn’t seem to be able to relax in the same way the other locals were, though I was starting to be quite comfortable, but clearly wasn’t there yet.

Electrical Fireworks

After 5 minutes I was done with that bath and headed outside to try the outdoor bath. As it was dark, there were little lights and the fine, simple Japanese garden style made it all very pretty. I sat down by a little waterfall and instantly the electrical firework going on the roof top caught my eye.

Now, I’m a huge fan of fireworks but this was… different. I moved along to a different bath, this one had little white rocks at the bottom, for a gentle massage on your feet or bottom – depending on how you sat in it. Only little kids joined me in this one, so I never found it how you were supposed to sit, or if it was a sit-how-you-want bath.

Salt Scrub Sauna

Going back inside, I came by some doors, clearly different saunas. The Hammam steam bath was also too hot for me, and I went into a normal sauna – with a big tv on, that everyone in there was clearly following.

This was nice for a while, and I was ready for the next, with a stop-by in the cold 19 degree C water. By now, I was getting very comfortable with everything, and I went back to the next door. There was no-one in there, only a big tv screen going, but I was ready to just try what was there.

Cups were lined up and big wooden buckets of salt everywhere… I was guessing some salt scrub was expected to take place here. I filled my cup with salt, sat down and started scrubbing away. Not sure that was what my body needed at this point, as I had already started to feel my top skin layer was scrubbed to the bottom in the initial washing phase, but now I was going all in. Another lady joined me, and she kindly showed me how to gently use the salt in my face using sign language.

Onsen Communication

I had tried to make contact with several other ladies in English, rather unsuccessfully. They had all been very nice and smiling but with my Japanese being so poor (read: non-existing), it was impossible to carry on any kind of conversation.

Even my simple questions, translated into my own hand gestures, didn’t really get my questions across. So, with this woman getting in contact with me, and having a successful hand gesture conversation, I felt proud and quite satisfied.

To Follow or Not to Follow Onsen Etiquette

The majority of other women in the Onsen were elderly women, thought there were some younger women and a few moms with young children. The elderly women sat down in all different positions getting themselves comfortable in the baths, sunbeds or chairs, coving their face (?) with the mini towel – now, with those positions they chose I had probably covered something different, but hey, who am I to judge.

It became more and more obvious to me that though there seem to be some clear Onsen etiquettes, the elderly women were breaking many of the rules clearly indicated on signs around the Onsen.

Being on my own in there, my whole Onsen experience ended up being more of a study in how to do Onsen and how rules are followed by some but not the elderly – which I guess is somewhat acceptable. I think I will want to do things my own way when I get to that age.

Onsen Finale

For my next Onsen experience I will bring my toiletries for after the whole thing, and I read that in some Onsens you are supposed to bring your own soap and shampoo. All in all, I had a really great and interesting experience. What started out with me being rather uncomfortable and insecure about the whole thing, I ended up being very relaxed and comfortable with the Onsen situation. Would I do it again – absolutely! Oh, and I should mention that in many Onsens they have full body massage chairs in the entrance areas – do it! It was 200 Yen for 10 minutes, and it was the perfect finale to my Onsen experience along with the wonderful meal my husband and kids had ready for me when I came out after 2 hours of Onsen – an hour later than the boys. If you would like more information about Onsens and where to find them, have a look at this page.

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