In Japan, you need to follow the rules: in a country built on tradition, etiquette is the cornerstone of society. You wait your turn, remove your shoes when necessary and always say thank you. In fact, if you’re ever in doubt, just say ‘arigato’, which is ‘thank you’ in Japanese, and respectfully bow your head.
Most places you visit in Japan require specific protocol. Follow the people in front of you and you’re likely to get by. But one of the most perplexing protocols to decrypt is that of the onsen – mostly because you can’t follow those ahead of you, as that would require looking at them while they’re nude. (That’s right, you have to be nude when entering an onsen.)
An onsen is a sacred steaming pool of thermal water known to have healing properties – different waters have different properties. Onsens are scattered around Japan and have been communal for centuries. Although the thermal waters are meant to soothe, if you don’t know the etiquette, there’s nothing relaxing about it and your first visit can be a confusing one. Are the men’s and women’s onsens separate? Usually, yes. Why do bathers put those little towels on their heads? They are washcloths that should not be dipped in the onsen water.
If you follow the rules, it’s all very simple. Firstly, remove all clothing before entering the washroom, which is where you clean yourself before entering the onsen. Onsens are for soaking and relaxing, not cleaning, so scrub yourself thoroughly from head to toe beforehand – and don’t forget your hair. Once you’re in, do not submerge your head. Fold the tiny towel into a square and place it on your crown. If it happens to fall into the water, be very quick to fish it out. Also, never talk, and don’t dare bring your mobile phone along. This is definitely not a place for selfies. And finally, the best rule about an onsen is that you must luxuriate. Find a spot to wade and enjoy the soothing properties of the warm, ancient waters. That’s a rule everyone can get behind.
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