Like most experiences in Japan, they seem to be surrounded by a handful of structures and rules to follow. They maintain the harmony, keep the peace, and make sure nobody gets hurt. Or rather, they maintain tradition. It’s the way thing have always been done, and continue to be done they shall…
This freaks some visitors out. Palms get sweaty, knees weak, online guides are bookmarked. No one wants to offend the locals, because if that happens…You probably wouldn’t even know. Anyways, regardless, we don’t want to do that!
Onsen in particular is a high tension environment, which is exactly the opposite of what it’s meant to be. I mean, you’re naked, so now you have to follow the rules extra carefully.
When I first started going to onsen, and continued going with my foreign friends for the next 8 months, we followed the rules to the T. First washed ourselves thoroughly. Made sure to rinse all the soap off of ourselves. Got into the water, making extra sure that the towel didn’t touch the water. Maybe folded it and placed it on our heads…
And then I started going to onsen with the locals
What did they do? Well…
1. A brief rinse
No soap. No washing. Literally grabbed a bucket and poured the water over his head. After that, he jumped in the communal bath.
I was shocked.
In my head, I was thinking: “This isn’t how you’re meant to do it?! But the online guides said…Eh, I’ll copy him”.
So I rinsed myself too, and we got into the bath. No one blinked an eye. But then…
2. He dunked his towel into the water and squeezed it out
I was like, hang on. This one I definitely know you shouldn’t be doing. I’ve seen the anime before. I know you’re meant to put that little towel on your head or on the side of the bath.
Then I realised this makes a bit more sense. He hadn’t used the towel yet. He hadn’t got soap onto it yet, hadn’t cleaned or dried himself with it, nothing. So it was basically a fresh, clean towel. I didn’t follow his lead because I couldn’t think of why I would need to do that, but hey, it’s a thing.
Did people blink? Probably, since quite a few minutes had passed. Did people blink at the towel going into the water?…I’d like to say no, but admittedly one or two people looked. Hey, at least it wasn’t me.
EDIT (December 2019: This is quite popular to do even if people had been using their towel for a while. After writing this, I’ve visited many more onsen and have been keeping note. This doesn’t seem to be frowned upon – at least in regular, popular neighborhood onsen).
3. No one sat on their towels in the sauna
This is perhaps a more universal rule than a Japan-specific one, but you’re told you should place your towel on the bench and sit on that….The same one that’s not meant to enter the water. Ah, now this makes sense.
But no one really does this. People are usually using their towel for uhhh…Modesty purposes in the sauna. Ah…”Don’t dunk your towel in the water” really does make a whole lot of sense in theory, doesn’t it.
4. We had a snow fight
Okay, separate onsen experience, but also with local Japanese people. Soon after entering the bath, a snow fight started with the girls next door. I don’t know exactly who threw the first snow ball, but it was definitely a local. I was way too timid in the onsne to even think about doing this first.
But after you get hit with the first snow ball – hey, if you can’t beat them, join them. Snow was being lobbied over the wall into the girls’ section and vice versa.
Picture that. A bunch of men running around naked in the snow, having a snow ball fight with the neighbours over the wall. Glorious.
It stopped abruptly when the female (!!!!) employee came into the onsen area to test the water temperature. Now we were behaving.
Perhaps that’s who really cares about the rules. The owners and employees of the onsen.
5. Tattoos are more accepted in onsen than I realised
Okay, so this one I thought was a super strict rule. Once I saw loads of people with tattoos in many different onsen, I asked my local friends about this while we were at the onsen.
Turns out, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is more widespread than you’d think. If you ask for permission to enter the onsen with tattoos, you’ll get a pair of crossed fingers in your face and a clear no.
If you simply enter, you’re more than likely to get a blind eye. Heh, who would’ve thought. Turns out I was more shocked that tattoos were allowed in the onsen than the locals were.
I’d been conditioned into thinking and feeling a certain way.
EDIT (December 2019): I’ve come to learn that if an onsen has a sign at the entrance to the bath that explictly says no tattoos, they’re quite strictly unwelcome. If you don’t see a sign, you’re likely alright. Unfortunately, the entrance to the bath is only accessible after you’ve paid.
Now, this is all anecdotal (through extensive, weekly onsen experiences). A lot of locals may verbally disagree with this post, but hey, you know what they say – actions speak louder than words.