Onsen in Tokyo: A First Timer's Experience

Onsen in Tokyo: A First Timer’s Experience

Don’t let the fear of the unknown or the language barrier keep you from experiencing a public onsen when visiting Japan! Here’s everything you need to know to make your first onsen experience a perfect one.

A visit to an onsen is one of the most quintessentially Japanese things to do, and is a much-loved Japanese tradition. Besides being an incredibly relaxing way to reconnect with nature and keep warm in winter, these natural volcanic hot springs also purportedly confer a whole range of health benefits, from pain relief to boosting blood circulation. As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do – don’t miss out on the chance to visit an onsen on your next trip to Japan!

Here’s everything you need to know for a smooth-sailing public onsen experience if it’s your first time.

onsen in tokyo

Image credit: Japanexperterna.se

Before Going to the Onsen

1. Find out what type of public onsen experience you’re looking for

There are several types of public onsens, so do try to get some information on the specific onsen you intend to visit first.

There are outdoor onsens (rotenburo), where you’ll get to soak in nature, and indoor onsens that are fully sheltered from the elements. Some larger onsens offer a mix of both, so you’ll get the best of both worlds.

Most onsens are traditional, and guests will be separated by gender because they’ll need to strip down completely to enter. Some modern onsen complexes that cater more to tourists might be mixed-gender, and would therefore require bathing suits.

2. Make sure you fulfill the conditions of entry

Most onsens do not allow guests with tattoos to enter. If you have small visible tattoos, you might want to try using a tattoo cover seal. Otherwise, look for a tattoo-friendly onsen, or consider booking a private onsen. Guests under the influence of alcohol will also not be allowed to enter.

3. Bring at least one small towel

While some onsens might provide towels, it’s safer to prepare them, just in case! One small towel would be used as a modesty cover when moving from bath to bath, while the second optional one would be used to dry your hair after taking a shower at the end of the day. If you forget to bring a towel, you can likely either rent or buy one from the onsen. Ladies with long hair should also bring a hair tie to bun up their hair.

There should be no need to bring soap as it should be provided by the onsen.

Image credit: Saya-No-Yudokoro

At the Onsen

My friend and I chose Saya-No-Yudokoro, a beautiful ‘super onsen’ nestled in northern Tokyo with both outdoor and indoor baths fed with water from a natural hot spring 1,500m below ground, as our first authentic onsen experience. The facility also features a beautiful zen garden and a restaurant.

onsen in tokyo

Here’s what our experience was like, from start to end:

onsen in tokyo

Image credit: Mariko Kato

Before even entering the lobby area to purchase tickets for the onsen, we each had to deposit 100 yen into a shoe locker to store our shoes. Once the shoes were locked, we took the keys with us and walked into the lobby area barefoot.

We purchased tickets from a vending machine, and were handed both the ticket and the key to the staff at the counter. This was exchanged for a key attached to a rubber wristband that would unlock our assigned lockers.

Image credit: Amehare

We then walked to the gender-separated changing rooms, with red curtains for ladies and blue curtains for gentlemen. Past the curtains, no mobile phones or cameras are allowed. Inside, people were stripping down by their lockers – just a small preview of what’s to come! Once we kept all our clothes in the locker and brought a towel with us, we moved to the communal bathroom.

Image credit: Lakuda-san

Showering before entering the onsen is a must. We sat down on these little stools and made sure we were clean and soap-free before heading to the indoor baths just beside us.

Image credit: Saya-No-Yudokoro

The different types of mineral-rich baths had different health benefits – some of them claimed to be beneficial for your skin, while others helped you to relieve joint and muscle pain. We started with the bath at an average temperature to get used to the heat, and then slowly moved to the warmer ones.

Make sure that the towel doesn’t touch the water – you can balance it on your head or leave it at the side. Also ensure that your hair doesn’t touch the water, so this means no submerging your head underwater like you’re swimming!

Image credit: Saya-No-Yudokoro

If you start to feel light-headed or dizzy, get out of the water and take a cold shower to cool down. We only stayed in each bath for around ten minutes. Remember to drink lots of water to stay hydrated in between as well – there should be a water fountain nearby.

After a few rounds of bath-hopping and checking out the sauna, we decided to call it a day. Shower in the same communal bathroom, dry yourself with your towel, and head back to the changing room to put on your clothes.

The onsen that we went to had a restaurant with an incredible view of a Japanese-style zen garden, so we filled our stomachs there before heading off. And after soaking in the hot baths for so long, we were so relaxed and at peace that it was hard to keep awake! For a truly Japanese experience, get a bottle of fresh milk as your post-onsen drink.

Return the changing room locker key at the reception area to get the key for your shoes, and you’ll get your 100 yen back once you take your shoes back.

Now that you know what to expect, you’re all set to visit an onsen on your next trip to Japan!

Personally, my first authentic onsen experience was a truly unforgettable one. My friend and I probably unlocked the highest level of friendship by going to an onsen together. While it was a little shocking to see so many naked people at first, it helped that everyone was naked too, so we didn’t feel that awkward and self-conscious after a while. Plus, you’ll probably never see these people again, so don’t worry too much about it.

Just look at the scenery instead of the people, and sit back and relax.

Maenohara Onsen Saya-No-Yudokoro
Address: 3-41-1 Maenocho, Itabashi-ku, Tokyo 174-0063
Opening Hours: 10am to 1am daily
Admission Fees:
[Adult] Weekdays: ¥870 | Weekends & Holidays: ¥1,100
[Child] Weekdays: ¥550 | Weekends & Holidays: ¥750
Directions: Take the Toei Mita line train to Shimura-Sakaue station. Take Exit A2 and walk for 8 minutes.

About Author

Michelle Tan
Michelle Tan

Michelle is a creative storyteller who is fuelled by caffeine and her dreams of exploring the world. She aspires to become a polyglot, and when not planning her next trip, she enjoys playing covers on the guitar, completing quests on the PS4, and binge-watching Netflix. Read about her misadventures at A Girl Must Wander and see the world through her eyes at @agirlmustwander.


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