Since it’s the week of the Onsen Matsuri, a festival celebrating Beppu’s numerous hot springs, I thought what better time to talk about the first time I went to an onsen, and give some tips and answer some FAQs to hopefully reassure those that’re unsure about trying onsen (like I was at first).
First, let me explain about Beppu’s onsen districts, known as “Beppu Hatto” (“Hatto” is written with the kanji for “8” and the kanji for “hot water”, so this’ll give you the hint that there are 8 of them). The main part of Beppu counts as one, then there’s Hamawaki, Kankaiji, Horita, Myouban, Kannawa, Shibaseki and Kamegawa. Each district has its own various good onsens and interesting areas to explore.
When me and my fellow British JET came to Beppu, neither of us had tried onsen before, but we didn’t know where would be good to go or what to do, so the JET Programme ALTs (English language teachers) that lived near us arranged a group trip for us all to go together so that those who had been before could show those of us who hadn’t what we needed to do.
Their place of choice was Horita Onsen, which as the name suggests is in the Horita district, up on a hill. It’s a municipal onsen which is separated into a mens’ and womens’ area, and each has both an indoor and outdoor bath, as well as a shower area. Entry is only 210 yen (or free on 6th April as part of the Onsen Matsuri) and they also have lockers near the entrance that you can use to store valuables (there are shelves in the shower area for your towels, clothes and toiletries etc. though)
All of the areas were really clean and welcoming, the indoor bathing area had a nice stone paved floor and reasonably sized bath, and outside was an open-air bath with another paved area, dotted with large rocks and decorative plants. It didn’t feel awkward because we all went in together so we sort of got any awkwardness out of the way pretty quickly and just relaxed and chatted in the warm water.
So, how to use onsen, you ask? Here are some tips:
- sit down and wash yourself using the shower area before you get in the onsen. Make sure you thoroughly rinse off any shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, etc.
- be careful not to splash other people when using the shower to rinse off
- rinse the stool you sat on with the shower after using it
- if you have long hair, it must be tied up or clipped back so it doesn’t fall in the onsen water
- likewise, don’t put your towel in the onsen water, leave it on the side or in the shower area
- use the onsen quietly so as not to disturb other people – don’t be that group of annoyingly loud/obnoxious foreigners!
- likewise, don’t take photos in the onsen. This should be obvious, since it’s a place where people are naked/getting changed, but I have heard about some ignorant people doing this so I thought I’d better say it
- don’t try to swim or play in the onsen, it’s for relaxing in, not doing exercise
Still worried about something? Here’s some FAQs:
Don’t you have to be naked to use the onsen? I don’t want everyone staring at me…
You do for most of them, but it’s okay, honestly. Using the onsen is very natural for Japanese people, seeing people naked in the onsen isn’t a big deal for them. Sure they might look at you a bit if you’re a foreigner, but the chances are they’d do that even if you were wearing clothes, so it’s not because you’re naked. If you still feel too uncomfortable about it, Beppu has multiple onsen that have open air areas where you can wear a swimsuit! Some onsen also have private bathing areas that you can use alone or just with your family or partner.
I have tattoos, but you’re not allowed to go in the onsen if you have tattoos, right? I want to experience the onsen but I don’t want the locals to think I’m being an ignorant tourist…
Don’t worry! In Beppu we have lots of onsen that allow tattoos – you don’t even have to cover them up! Some other onsen only allow tattoos in the private bathing areas though, so please check! A list of all the onsen and more information can be found here!
I heard that the onsen smell bad because of the sulfur. How can I enjoy the onsen if I’m not used to such a strong smell?
No need to worry! I actually have the same problem, the steam in onsen areas is too strong for me sometimes too. But when you’re actually in the onsen I found it was fine. At Horita Onsen for example, there’re plumes of steam nearby that smell strong, but once you enter you can’t smell it. Also, not all onsen have sulfuric water, so if you choose a type of onsen that doesn’t have sulfuric water (such as the “simple” or “chloride” spring types), you should be able to enjoy your time in the onsen. To see which onsen are which type, the link I posted above has a printable leaflet (which you can also normally find a copy of at Beppu City Hall, near the merchandise shop to the right as you come in the first floor main entrance) which says which onsen are which spring type.
Hope this information has helped you feel a bit more comfortable about trying onsen!
It really is worth trying at least once!
Photo ©Beppu-Kankou-Kyoukai 2011, no copyright infringement intended