One of the highlights of traveling around Japan is a relaxing stay at a Japanese onsen (hot springs) resort.
Hot springs are common in many countries, but what makes Japan unique is the onsen culture, which blends an appreciation of nature with a sophisticated philosophy. Here is your guide to onsen – the different types, the best times and places to go, and the all-important onsen etiquette.
WHAT TO WEAR
This one’s easy: nothing. Onsen are for naked soaks, save for the rare variety (such as urban onsen theme parks like Tokyo’s Oedo Monogatari) that allow bathing suits.
TYPES OF ONSEN BATHS
Most onsen will have one or more indoor baths, and these are usually gender-separated. At some onsen, the indoor bath is actually the main attraction, due to its history, architecture, or views. A great example of this is the historic Chojukan Hoshi Onsen in Gunma Prefecture.
ROTENBURO (OPEN-AIR ONSEN)
Bathing in natural hot springs while feeling the refreshing mountain air is the pinnacle of the onsen experience. At some onsen, the rotenburo are gender-separated, while others offer kon’yoku (mixed bathing). Tsurunoyu Onsen in Akita Prefecture (pictured further below) has an iconic kon’yoku rotenburo, which is at its most magical in the dead of winter. There is nothing quite like soaking in a remote onsen in the middle of the snowy woods.
These days, most onsen are gender-separated, to the chagrin of many onsen purists. If you’d like to be able to share the onsen experience with your opposite-sex partner, family member, or friend, you’ll need a mixed-bathing, private in-room, or private rental onsen.
KON’YOKU ONSEN (MIXED BATHING)
Some traditional onsen are for both sexes. These are ideal if you’re