Bare Naked: Inside a Japanese Onsen

by Dave on April 25, 2011 · 15 comments

Onsen in Kyoto

The entrance to a popular onsen in Kyoto.

Along with visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, spending time at a Japanese onsen (public bath, hot spring) was a popular recommendation when I was asking for advice on Twitter and Facebook before my trip.

I quickly discovered through this feedback that the Japanese traditionally do not wear bathing suits when using the onsens.  Finding this out in advance gave me a little time to mentally prepare for my first nude, public bathing experience.

[Editor's Note:  Mom, Dad and former coworkers -- you might want to skip this post!]

While couchsurfing in Tokyo, I met an Australian who had spent time snowboarding in the northern mountains, and he talked fondly of his visits to the onsens, painting a picture of hanging out in the hot springs as snow gently fell from the sky, and having snowball fights (naked, I presume).  He said you get use to the nudity fast.  I chose to believe him.

Onsens are everywhere, however Tokyo seemed too urban an environment for the experience, and while Nagano had a better feel to it, my day trip to see the snow monkeys there was so rushed I decided to hold off.

As in the USA, early February is still the midst of Winter in Japan, and the temps in Kyoto during my stay were hovering around the freezing mark, if not colder at night.  I asked for an onsen recommendation at my hostel, and was given a map (as usual, because whenever you ask for directions in Japan, you’re also given a map).

I picked my second afternoon in Kyoto to take a break from sightseeing, and delve into the Japanese tradition of public bathing. After an exhausting journey across the city, I arrived at the doorstep of the suggested onsen, which I was told was a popular one.  Because if I’m going to get naked with a bunch of dudes, I want it to at least be at a happening place.

Inside the reception area, I removed my shoes, and put on the provided sandals. The woman behind the counter looked at me as if I knew what I were doing, but I didn’t, and she eventually guided me toward the entrance of the men’s locker room.

I was previously informed by my couchsurfing hosts that onsens in urban areas are usually segregated by sex, while in the countryside, both men and women are more likely to share the same baths.

The locker room featured plenty of lockers (duh!), and to my surprise, a camera crew.  WTF, I thought, as I scoped out the two female crew members and the massive video camera. It appeared they were breaking down the equipment, after getting whatever footage they needed.

The girls seemed to purposefully avoid eye contact with me, so I decided they were doing their best not to pay attention. I stripped off my 3 layers of shirts, and hoody, and jeans and socks, and ultimately my boxers.

I swiftly walked my naked self into a small hallway connecting the locker room with the bathing area. There were a few sinks, but I couldn’t figure out what you’d do in there.  I passed through the second door and entered the bathing room.

It was about 2 or 3 pm on a weekday afternoon, and there were at least a half dozen men in there, naked. I was naked too, but I tried not to think about that. I also tried not to notice all the penises swinging around the room.

Since I bought a small bar of soap from the receptionist, I sat on one of the little (and I mean it was no more than 12 inches tall) plastic stools positioned under shower heads that were no more than 4 feet high. If I felt awkward standing, I felt ridiculous sitting on that little stool, trying to wash myself under a midget size shower.  Nobody warned me about this part.

As I washed, I tried to scope out what the other guys were doing simply to figure out the protocol. Some guys seemed to spend 10 minutes under the shower scrubbing soap all over. I cut that step short, and then moved to one of the pools of water, which was too hot.  I then tried a larger pool, which was still hot but more bearable, where a few old men were hanging out.

Slipping into the water, I read a sign posted on the wall that indicated the water was electrically heated (ie. not supplied from a natural thermal spring).

Turns out I’m going through the whole naked routine without the payoff provided by naturally occurring spring water. Was I naked for nothing?

I tried to make the best of the jacuzzi-like environment, but I found it hard to relax.  Did I mention all the old, naked Japanese men with whom I was sharing the oversized hot tub?

After a few minutes in the pool, I got out and once again showered awkwardly, before making my exit back to the locker room. The camera crew was long gone, and I quickly got dressed as it was cold once you stepped outside of the steamy bathing room.

Walking outside, I felt surprisingly refreshed. But I surely would’ve felt the same way had I taken a private shower back at the hostel. I couldn’t help but feel my first onsen experience was lacking, and with so little time in Japan, I’d be leaving the country before I’d have a second chance.

Where in the world have you taken a public (naked) bath in the name of exploring the local customs?  Did it live up to your expectations?

This video shows a typical onsen; mine was in a city so it lacked the windows with charming views.

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Categories: Features, Japan
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15 Comments

yozhik_v_lesu April 26, 2011 at 12:22 am

interesting take. i’m curious though. you seem to be a little too preoccupied with the nudity factor. haven’t you ever gone ‘skinny dipping’ as a kid or have you ever been in a gym locker room? the nudity factor here doesn’t really seem as though it should have been the central point; unless you grew up as a conservative mulsim, i guess. or this entire post was completely tongue in cheek.

i suggest traveling through russia and visiting a banya. it’s almost the opposite as an onsen. you tough it out in a sauna with a group of friends and then dive into a cold pool. the nudity is incidental and the experience is much more of a relaxation and bonding opportunity.

i would definitely suggest going with a local or at least a friend.

Reply

Dave April 26, 2011 at 12:53 am

I trying to add a little humor to the experience when I wrote it up, thus the mentions of nudity. I mean I’m not in the habit of getting naked in front of strangers….I doubt most Americans are.

Growing up as kid, we were never getting totally undressed in the locker rooms while changing for gym class (nobody used the showers, ever). Ok, maybe a few times when I went to camp, but I found it awkward as a kid too.

Yes, on the skinny dipping, but again, that’s a different situation in my book, and not something I’d be doing weekly, let alone daily, as many Japanese do.

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Andi Perullo April 26, 2011 at 12:39 pm

I was at a Japanese Onsen in Hakone and I was naked, but only around women…

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Runaway Brit April 30, 2011 at 9:15 am

Great post! I’m British and have therefore been brought up to believe that public nudity is shameful, (God forbid that you ever see a naked woman in the shower at the gym or pool!!!) and so my trip to a Japanese onsen was a liberating experience for me.

We were given a tiny towel that barely even covered one breast and had to copy the actions of others as we were given no instructions. I was with a very good friend of mine but we both made a conservative effort not to look any further below the level of each others’ eyes the whole time!

I am glad I did it but I found the water too hot to stay in for very long, as did my friend who promptly fainted in the changing rooms. Not an ideal situation to deal with when you are both in the nude!!!!

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Dave May 1, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Whoa, that’s crazy that she fainted. While I was in the water, I read a sign that warned about how people with heart conditions should be careful. Not that I have one, but I found the warning itself a little disconcerting.

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bethany May 7, 2011 at 12:16 am

OMG. You are brave! Seriously! I gotta hand it to you on this one. We visited the thermal pools in Iceland and we had to get naked (I did not know this ahead of time) to bath before we could go in the pools. We were separated by sex but imagine my surprise when I walked into the place and there was naked women all over the place! I thought i was just going to put on my bathing suit and hit the tubs but oh no. They had watch guards who made sure everyone got good and naked, got their scrub on, then went back soaking wet to put on their bathing suits then when outside. No one used towels either. I was like WTF people? we’re all just walking around butt naked? Furthermore why can’t we shower w/ our suits on??? It took some getting used to. However the midget shower and the full on naked bathing is crazy. I seriously don’t know if i could do it. Especially for electric heated water – what a bummer!

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Dave May 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm

The worst part is I didn’t watch the video in this post ahead of time — I’m pretty sure I didn’t wipe off the plastic stool before I sat down (ewww).

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Jpdreamerz May 12, 2011 at 7:38 am

I enjoyed the Japanese baths immensely, you just have to go a couple times to get the sense of it. For a different public bathing experience go to Turkey and visit a Turkish bath. Walk in, shower, then lie on a large, hot stone slab in the center of the room for 20 minutes (or more), sweating everything out. Then, a big Turkish guy comes in and scrubs / massages you with a luffa (a real one, not a plastic imitation), priding himself on how many layers of dead skin he is able to scrape off of you in the process. Then shower off again and you’re done. Oh, and you have a little room with a bed to rest in if you want between trips to the hot bath. This in a predominantly Muslim country, because of tradition handed down and evolved over the centuries from the roman baths of the past.

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Dave May 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Good point, I would like to give the whole public bathing experience a fair shot. And when I get to Turkey, I do want to try it there. I remember watching Anthony Bourdain go through it on his show No Reservations. Looked fun/torturous.

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Darryl August 24, 2012 at 1:45 am

I miss the onsens. I think it is one of the key attributes of Japan that helps offset a lot of the nonsense the pervades the place. I do wish the onsens were co-ed though. But, I do understand the problems if that were the case.

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Dave August 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

I heard that the onsens in more rural areas of Japan are co-ed, it’s just the ones in the cities that are split by gender.

Frankly, I felt a bit uncomfortable in front of naked men, let alone women too!

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Amanda in Hawaii November 25, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Part of the experience is just being able to tune out from the world for a few hours. I LOVE the korean spas here in Honolulu and have dipped in a lot of clothing optional places in the USA too. I would love to try an onsen in Japan.

I think you might have missed part of the process. That initial shower is to get clean but also mentally to remove yourself from the outside and allow you to “soak up” the experience. Then you just turn your brain off for the next 2-3 hours.

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Amanda in Hawaii November 25, 2012 at 7:47 pm

You put a folded towel on the little plastic stool for extra sanitation. I sit on my folded towel when I’m doing my legs in the hot tubs too.

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Darry November 26, 2012 at 2:04 am

One of the romances of Japan that I cannot let go of is with the onsen. The onsen experience with that hot mineral water (of various flavours and colours) is great, enlivening, a geat dsitraction from the nonsense of everyday life in Japan. If you can find a ‘co-ed’ onsen you are even luckier. More often than not, however, the women who venture to such places are well past retirement.

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Dave November 26, 2012 at 11:06 am

Darry, I heard the coed onsens are mostly in the rural areas. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it were outdoors.

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