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Onsen (hot springs) are amazing. In Japan, they usually tell you how amazing they are with a laundry list of health conditions purportedly treated by that particular hot springs posted outside the bath entrance. Even if you don’t 100% believe that laundry list, onsen are still amazing. They’re twice as relaxing as a regular bath, make your skin smooth, and soothe sore muscles. You can also enjoy the extreme luxury of spending time outside, gazing at a mountain stream or a forest blanketed by snow, while soaking in hot waters. At the same time! It’s glorious. You can even birdwatch. My onsen list includes Grey Wagtails, Crested Kingfishers, Brown Dippers, and even a mammal: a displeased-looking Japanese giant flying squirrel that emerged cute face and enormous bushy tail-first from the roof of a hot spring enclosure I was soaking in!

Maybe the idea of going to an onsen to spend time with naked strangers sounds less than appealing. But please: just give it a chance next time you come to Japan. Barring certain health conditions (like pregnancy, heart conditions), onsen time is doable for anybody!

Here’s a shy person’s tips on how to make a trip to the onsen work for you:

Choose your hot spring wisely. Check out pictures of the onsen. Does it have a single, small-looking indoor bath? Or are there multiple baths, some of them inside, some of them outside, some of them very large? I recommend going to a hot spring complex with multiple baths. With a single bath, all the bathers are concentrated in one bath and you have nowhere to hide. But with multiple baths, the bathers are spread out, and you can take refuge in the bath with the least people.

One of the baths at Himekayu Hot Springs

Take note of any mixed baths (konyoku). Both men and women can use these baths. You may want to take special care to avoid them, or you may want to use them in order to take an opposite sex partner or friend along as backup.

Choose the right day and time. Weekends and holidays usually means more people, so try to avoid national holidays, and go on a weekday if possible. Many Japanese people apparently don’t like to take baths right after meals, so just around and after dinnertime, for example is a good time. I also get very good results avoiding people by taking a bath in the middle of the night.

A typical room at a hot springs inn


Bring your own towel. In my experience, many bathers bring in very small towels and proceed to cover exactly nothing with them. You do not have to do this. You can walk around wrapped in a large beach towel you brought in if it makes you more comfortable. As long as the towel doesn’t touch the water, meaning you put the towel down somewhere (a ledge, the side of the bath) before you enter the bath, you’re fine.

Still a no go? So for some people, the above tips might be helpful, but I’m sure others will be firmly in Team Nope for some very good reasons. For you, I have the perfect solution. Some hot springs have private baths, called “kazoku-buro” (family bath) or “kashikiri-buro” (private bath). For a fee of around 1000 to 3000 yen, you and your family can enjoy the onsen 100% free of strangers during your reserved time.

The author’s mother and father enjoying their first stay at an onsen at Fujisan Ryokan in Hanamaki