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Onsen and Sentō: the guide to public baths in Japan

Having loved the experience of thermal baths in Budapest, I was eager to discover the Onsen in Japan

I had the opportunity to get a taste of it by testing an Onsen in Hanoi, Vietnam, but the day after our arrival in Osaka, we went to a first real Japanese Onsen

The experience is great and we will surely test several of them during our stay 🙂

In the first part of this article we will describe how a session in an Onsen takes place. In the second part, we will talk more specifically about those we have tested

Obviously you won’t find many pictures in this article, this will preserve some surprises for your visit 🙂

An Onsen: what is it?

According to Wikipedia, an onsen (literally “hot spring”) is a Japanese thermal bath. These are hot baths, generally common, indoor or outdoor, whose water comes from volcanic springs sometimes reputed for their therapeutic properties. Nudity is de rigueur. The term designates both the spring, the baths and also the spa built around the baths

Japanese people who often have a very stressful lifestyle go there to relax and take care of themselves. Alone or in small groups

Note that there are also the Sentō, public baths without thermal waters

How does a session in an Onsen take place?

The experience is a little confusing when you first experience it. Here is a detailed description of the process so that you don’t make a mistake and can enjoy it to the fullest

Please note that the Onsen aren’t mixed, the spaces for men and women are separated

You don’t have anything to bring except a small towel which, depending on the Onsen, can be provided or rented

The shoes

In a concern of cleanliness, you must systematically remove your shoes before entering and put them in a small locker. In large onsen, you will often need a 100 yen coin for the locker. In small sento, this is rarely the case


Once you have entered your Onsen, go to the changing room (without individual booths) and undress completely. You must indeed leave your complexes outside, the Onsen experience is lived completely naked. Leave your belongings in the locker provided for this purpose (you may need to bring a 100 yen room for the locker)


After undressing, enter the Onsen with your small towel and don’t forget the first mandatory step: a meticulous wash! Indeed, it is unacceptable to use the different baths without being clean

At the entrance, there is usually a large basin with hot water. Take a container and rinse yourself, this also prepares your body for the higher temperature of the baths

To wash yourself, you will then find small stools in a row of onions on which you can sit and use a shower head. You always have a mirror and a basin at your disposal

You can also take advantage of this space to shave and brush your teeth

Depending on the onsens, hygiene products (soaps, shampoo, conditioner, toothbrushes, razors, …) are included in the price or can be bought on the spot. When this isn’t included, the locals usually come with their own products


Once clean you can use the different spaces

  • Baths with large temperature differences (from about 18°C to 43°C depending on the Onsens)
  • Jacuzzis
  • A sauna
  • A hammam
  • Sometimes outdoor baths with spaces to lie down.

Take your time and relax!


Once finished, it is important to dry off before returning to the locker room to avoid creating slippery puddles

Once back in the locker room you often have access to a scale to weigh yourself, cotton buds and other products to finalize your grooming

Remember to rehydrate yourself, you may not realize it, but between the hot baths, the hammam and the sauna, you sweat a lot. Out of curiosity, I once weighed myself before and after my onsen session, I had lost 400 grams. Drinking water fountains are often available

Is there an order to be respected in the use of space?

To tell the truth, I don’t know. After discreetly observing the premises, I don’t have the impression that there is any particular order

For my part, I like to start by using the different baths at room temperature and then make big temperature variations: a few minutes in the coldest bath and then a few minutes in the hottest

After that, I enjoy the Hammam and then the Sauna with a small passage through the coldest bath each time (I love the cold – hot and hot – cold transitions!)

Finally, I lie down in the spaces provided for this purpose to relax while drying

What is the small towel for?

This small towel will have several uses

  • At the time of washing, it will act as a washcloth to soap you, especially in the back which isn’t always an easy area to polish.
  • When you are in the sauna, hammam or if you are lying down somewhere, it will act as a sex-cover.
  • You can use it to mop your face when you get out of the different baths.
  • Once well wrung out, it will allow you to wipe yourself.

Funny little detail: since the towel is made to be soapy, it is forbidden to put the towel in a bath. As there is no hook or other to put it away, some people leave it on the edge of the bath, others put it on their head, others still tie it around their forehead in a samurai way

Imagine yourself completely naked in a bath with a towel folded over your head, the scene is quite ridiculous

Can I go to an Onsen if I am tattooed?

The general rule is that it is forbidden to go to an Onsen if you have a tattoo

This excludes yakuza (members of the Japanese mafia) whose tattoo is a distinctive sign

If your tattoo is discreet, you can hide it with a waterproof bandage and ask at the reception if they accept you with this subterfuge

Some Onsen however seem to accept tattoos (see the different Onsen we experimented below)

What to do if you have glasses?

If you are short-sighted like me, you can easily get lost in the big onsen if you don’t have your glasses ^^

Please note that you can wear them during your session

In some onsen, a small shelf at the entrance of the saunas and hammams allows to put down one’s glasses

If not, keep them on you, it’s not ideal but that’s what the locals do

Electric baths? What the hell is that?

In many onsen and sento, you will discover a special kind of bath. At first glance, only its small size distinguishes it from the others

Without being wary, you enter one foot in and immediately take it out again, you have just taken an electric shock!

Water + electricity = danger, the first time it’s pretty scary and you wonder if it’s normal

In fact this is quite normal, if you look closely you will see electrodes on the inside of the bath that diffuse an electric current horizontally

It is an electric bath or denki buro. For my part I’ve been tricked twice and it’s not really pleasant

If you see a bath smaller than the others, sometimes with a small red light, sometimes with a small sign with red Japanese characters: beware!

If you do not suffer from heart problems, no danger, it seems that this bath is good for rheumatism

I’ve only seen a Japanese person use this bath once. I have also read that young people stay away from electric baths: rumor has it that it reduces the amount of sperm?

How much does a session in an Onsen cost?

The onsens are rather cheap

Count between 400 yens (for a popular Sento) and 2000 yens (for a very large Onsen) for an entry

The average should be around 500 or 600 yens

You should also allow between 100 and 200 yen for the rental of a small towel if you don’t have one. This is rarely necessary for sento, but it is often necessary for onsen

The onsen we tested in Osaka

Tennen Onsen Naniwa Hot Spring: The first Onsen we tested and one of our favorites! (no tattoos allowed)

Irifune Onsen: More public bath than real Onsen, an excellent experience to feel like a local. (tattoos allowed)

Spa World Onsen: An incredible 8-storey place but a less authentic experience. (tattoos forbidden)

Suehiroyu: A popular little sento ideal for washing. (no indication concerning tattoos)

Sento Akashi-yu: A popular little sento. (tattoos allowed)

Shimizuyu: A popular sento, a little larger than average where I was particularly well received. (tattoos allowed)

The Onsen we tested in Kyoto

Funaoka Onsen: Despite its name it is a sento. Small and pleasant with a very cheap price. (tattoos seem to be allowed)

Tenzan-no-yu: A super onsen although the entrance ticket is more expensive than average. Its proximity to the bamboo forest is a big plus. (Tattoos are forbidden)

The onsen we tested in Kobe

Arima Onsen Taiko-no-yu: A fairly expensive onsen renowned for the variety of its health-giving waters. (tattoos are forbidden)

The onsen we tested in TOKYO

Ginza yu: A really simple sento with no interest other than to wash oneself. (no indication concerning tattoos)

Minatoyu: A modern, small but pleasant sento with access to the optional sauna. (Tattoos are forbidden)

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