About 400 km from Tokyo, nestled in the mountains, is a quaint little town called Nozawa-onsen. An onsen is a hot spring, and this town is full of free soto-yu or "public baths" where you can bathe and soak in natural hot spring water.
Japan actually has many onsens around the country, and no trip here is complete without at least one visit to an oyu. As first-time traveller to Japan, the customs and rituals of bathing at an onsen can be confusing or uncomfortable, especially if you're not sure of how to act or what to do. Not to fret --below I've prepared a guide to assist you with your very first onsen experience!
1. Men and women bathe separately. The male entrance is often marked with this character, "男" and the female with this, "女."
2. Remove your shoes/slippers when you enter. Say Hello to the other bathers ("Ohayogoaimasu," in the morning, "Konnichiwa," in the afternoon, and "Konbanwa" in the evening. "Hello," is also fine ;) )
3. Undress in the changing area. It is Japanese custom to use an onsen in the nude. Wearing clothing or swimwear into the bathing area is a big no-no because it it is believed to make the water dirty. I've seen this make a few foreigners uncomfortable (I was not a fan my very first time), but if you can overcome your shyness, it's really quite worth it. You can put your clothes away neatly in the baskets or lockers provided, and leave your shoes in the genkan (entrance) together.
4. Enter the bathing area with your face towel, shampoo, soap, and other toiletries (when I lived in Nozawa, I carried a basket with all of my things). Most pay onsens in Japan have little stools, stalls, and fresh-water showers, as well as complimentary body wash, shampoo, and conditioner. However, the free soto-yu in Nozawa are a throwback to 19th Century bathing --grab a bucket and find yourself somewhere to sit on the floor ;)
5. Before entering the onsen water, it is customary to lightly wash your body. Never wash inside the pool. If you are at an onsen with showers and you can control the water temperature, I suggest turning up the heat, at least before you enter the pool (it dulls the shock of the hot water quite well). If you are in Nozawa or another hot spring without showers, and it's your first onsen, I suggest filling your bucket 3/4 with the hot, mineral water from the pool, and 1/4 cold water from the taps along the side. This helps you adjust to the temperature, 'cause it can feel downright nuclear. Bathe seated, so as not to splash others, and never splash into the onsen. No matter where you are, this is most important: rinse off all soap residue!
6. Now you can enter the hot pool for a nice, long, relaxing soak. If the water is too hot, look for a cold water tap that feeds into the pool. Just try not to blast the onsen with too much cold water, especially if other people are enjoying it. Now sit back and relax; this is a tiny piece of heaven.
7. When you are ready to leave, you can rinse once more. Be sure to towel-dry your body as much as possible with your face towel, and feel free to wrap it around your hair/head before you exit. It's considered bad manners to enter the changing area dripping wet.
8. The changing area varies from onsen to onsen, but most pay onsens have complimentary body lotion, q-tips, hair dryers, and even disposable razors and combs. In Nozawa, you need to bring your own gear to the free soto-yu, and I suggest applying a healthy amount of body lotion to your skin once you're semi-dressed. The winter air and mineral water are a pretty killer combination!
9. Finally, bid adieu when you leave. "Otsukaresama," during the day, and, "Oyasuminasai," at night. "Goodbye," or "Goodnight," also work.
Some additional things to remember:
*Try not to bring your face towel into the onsen pool (many Japanese wear it on their head, but I leave mine on my basket). If it does fall into the pool, remember to ring it out after getting out of the water.
*Bathing is a social experience, so talking and laughing are great, but excessive noise like shouting or playing music from your device (I've seen it happen a few times!) is highly frowned upon. Running and splashing are also a no-go. Just be polite and respectful of the people around you, which should be a no-brainer.
*Above all, enjoy it! Make the most of your onsen experience. If there are multiple pools with different temperatures, try them all, especially any that are outside. Don't forget to finish off the ritual with a hot cup of matcha tea!