A collective of almost 7000 islands sitting on the rim of the Pacific Ocean's notorious "Ring of Fire", Japan is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of bubbly, piping hot volcanic hot springs. Onsen is a Japanese tradition that appeals to visitors but is often quickly overshadowed by a stampede of nervousness and fear. I'm a pretty perky and outgoing guy myself but I can't say that I don't sympathize with those that opt to skip this integral and beautiful part of Japanese culture. Going to a foreign country where you likely are unfamiliar with the etiquette and stripping completely naked before jumping into a community bath is probably one of the more terrifying things a traveler can face - I get it!
Add on top of that the general uneasiness many LGBTQ travelers have about being themselves in an unfamiliar location and you have a recipe for tense touring. As a gay man on the road, one of the first things I do before arriving in a new city or country is research local attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals and overall safety for our community. Even when educated, life (and travel) has a way of throwing you curve balls though. While Japan in general is a relatively safe destination for LGBTQ travelers, a unique situation like onsen changes the dynamic a bit. It is an entirely fair question to ask if this is an activity that we as a community can enjoy.
Luckily for me, I just happened to be half-Japanese and lived in Japan until I was fourteen years old, so the mystery of onsen was revealed to me at a very early age. The language is not foreign to me, I have a solid understanding of what to expect and, more importantly, what is expected of me as a visitor. This gives me a leg up and reduces some of my nervousness as a gay man, though it certainly doesn't make it disappear.
Hopefully I can use my experience and cultural competency to give other LGBTQ travelers an idea of what to expect when considering a dip into this Japanese tradition.
The magic that is Japanese onsen is an amazing thing to experience and that's why I want LGBTQ travelers to consider trying it when they wander through the Land of the Rising Sun. It's a therapeutic siren song that calls to weary feet that have spend the morning climbed Mt. Fuji or the neck rubbed raw by the dangling camera strap. Onsen is a quintessential experience for the visitor to Japan and it would be a shame for someone to miss out on the opportunity to peek into this ancient and revered part of Japanese culture. With this in mind, and knowing full well the hurdles even I have to overcome every year I return to my homeland to enjoy a dip, I present the "Shy Gay Guy's How To Guide For Japanese Onsen"!
Let's start off with a few things specifically for LGBTQ travelers that are good to know prior to showing up at the onsen followed by a general step by step guide to the entire process. My goal is to make sure you're fully informed and can make a decision about whether onsen is something you'd like to try!
IT'S A BATHHOUSE BUT NOT A "BATHHOUSE"
Bathhouses are not a new concept to many in the LGBTQ community, particularly those in the G category. Gay bathhouses are a common sight in most major Western cities, though the arrival of the internet and smartphone may be curbing younger generations interest or need for such facilities. Please note that unlike their western gay counterparts, Japanese onsen are generally not a location where men go to meet one another for casual sexual encounters. Yes, there's an option for soaking in a hot bath. Yes, there's communal nudity. But the similarities end there. Going to an onsen with an expectation of sexual activity or even meeting other LGBTQ individuals will likely end at a minimum with your disappointment and at most with your involvement with the Japanese police force.
If you're seeking a more sexually charged experience along with your onsen soak, you can find specific establishments (mostly located in Tokyo and Osaka) that can tickle your fancy.
EMBRACE YOUR NUDITY
Many Japanese adhere to the concept of "hadaka no tsukiai", which loosely translates as "naked communion". There's a societal belief that barriers are easier to break down and people are on their most equal footing in the nude.
There really is no way around this - if you want to onsen, you're going to have to strip down to your tight and curlies. As Japanese onsen are almost exclusively shared facilities (either by a community or as a privately owned site open to the public), wearing underwear or swimsuits into the water is strictly forbidden. Those are the rules, and there's really no way around it. Take a minute, breathe a little, and accept that some random strangers are going to see you in the buff.
My brother and sister preparing for a dip in an onsen.
This requirement may be of particular concern (and possibly a deal breaker unfortunately) for travelers that are transgender, intersex, or genderqueer. When your body and outward presentation doesn't conform to what people who see the world in a strict "male/female" dichotomy expect, it can raise concerns about safety and judgement, which is far from the experience travelers would want to seek out. While my personal opinion is that there is likely a miniscule chance of having a violent reaction from other patrons, there is a much greater chance that a traveler that is transgender, intersex, or genderqueer will have onsen staff or patrons react negatively to their presence in the onsen, whether it's expressed verbally or through body language.
I wish I could tell you that the chance of being excluded or discriminated against is small - but I can't. This is a real concern that LGBTQ travelers will need to weigh and make a decision about on their own.
There is a potential work around to this issue though!
If the nudity requirement is genuinely a deal breaker for you, I would suggest looking into an onsen facility that allows guests to book use of a hot spring in private. Some properties allow guests to book a specific time slot where they (solo or as a group with family/friends) will have exclusive, private use of an onsen. Note that even when you have exclusive use of the spring you should NOT be wearing underwear of swimwear into the water. The private booking is a way for you to remove the strangers from the equation, but the nudity is still mandatory. For couples, the option to book private time in the onsen is a great way to enjoy the experience while being intimate with your lover. Sitting close, holding hands, or embracing your partner can be uncomfortable when others are in the same hot spring. It should go without saying that sexual activity is not something you should enjoy in the onsen - it's a shared facility, no one wants to soak in your sexual debris!
As noted above - if you want to pursue an onsen experience, embrace the nudity! At the same time make sure you remain safe and avoid a situation that could ruin an otherwise great trip.
THE TATTOO CONUNDRUM
Another huge question that is often raised by visitors looking to experience onsen is whether or not having a tattoo will prevent them from being allowed inside. Traditionally in Japan tattoos and those who sport them are associated with organized crime. In order to avoid problems from patrons or becoming a meeting place for those looking to engage in criminal activity, onsen have typically instituted all-out bans on anyone with a tattoo. As time progresses and Japanese culture changes, tattoos are becoming more prevalent in Japanese society. As with most things though, society moves faster than rules and regulations change so the ban on tattoos in onsen seems to have quite a bit of staying power for now.
Like any other group of people, many LGBTQ travelers have tattoos. Any trip to a pride parade or bar will reveal a plethora of tattoos - anything from a full tribal arm sleeve to something as innocuous as the small fleur de lis my fiance has on his shoulder blade. Unfortunately the fact that someone is foreign is almost always not seen as a reason to overlook the ban on tattooed patrons.
My fiance's tattoo. His is small enough that we can often hide it.
Despite all of this, visitors should know that there are ways around this ban!
As noted above, you can always look into booking time at an onsen that allows private time slots. As long as your tattoo isn't visible when you're interacting with staff, no one will be checking in on you while you're undressing or enjoying the water. If you have tattoos on your arms or legs, just wear long sleeves and pants. If you have a visible tattoo in a location that you cannot easily hide, you may be out of luck.
Additionally, some onsen will allow tattooed individuals to enter the onsen if they are able to cover their tattoos with a bandaid or sticker. Some of these facilities even provide the stickers for patrons, but will often still deny entry to those that cannot cover their tattoos with a single sticker. If your tattoo needs two or more stickers to cover up, it's likely a no-go.
As a last resort, you can seek out an onsen facility that openly accepts those with tattoos. They are fewer in numbers than onsen that ban them, and Japan is not always the easiest country to find detailed information on the web. I know that the Kashiwaya Ryokan in Shima Onsen openly advertises access to tattooed visitors to some of their facilities. You can find their website here: (LINK).
One common misconception is that an onsen is a pool. This is a massive mistake. Other than the fact that they both have water the similarities end there.
Japan's hot springs are some of the most relaxing experiences on the planet. The sub-boiling volcanic water washes over your muscles and seems to magically suction out your pain and stress. Your bathing companions will quietly enjoy the pleasure of tiny waves of water washing over their shoulders while occasionally chit chatting about their day. There is nothing brash or loud about the experience.
LGBTQ travelers, just like any other type of person, do love to have a good time on the road. Unwinding, destressing, and living life to the fullest is high on the "to-do" list. While an onsen is designed to do all of those things, it achieves those goals through stillness and calm.
If you're looking for a place to blast your music, drink beer, and have cannonball splash contests, you should buy a ticket to Tokyo's DisneySea water park or find a warm stretch of sand on one of Japan's many beaches instead.
Please - respect the tradition and respect the onsen's serene atmosphere. You can always hit the clubs in the evening or have a beach bbq the next day!
HOW TO ONSEN
With those general notes for LGBTQ travelers covered, let's get down to the nitty gritty of how you actually go about enjoying the onsen!
Step 1: Figure Out Where To Onsen
While hot spring bathing is available in thousands of locations around Japan, not all facilities are created equally nor are all options really offering the same type of experience.
Many local communities and neighborhoods in larger cities have shared onsen facilities that are owned by the local government and generally very inexpensive. They're also quite public, not particularly prepared for tourists, and you're less likely to find someone to help you should you have a question. Great for budget travelers but not so much anyone else.
If you're looking for a step up from this, there are facilities that are set up like day spas in many major cities where you can buy entrance for a few hours or an entire day and have unlimited access to various types of hot springs, wading pools, and other leisurely activities. While these are much more accessible and likely able to handle tourist inquiries, they're not really in the spirit of traditional Japanese onsen. It's more like a modern day spa with a Japanese Instagram filter.
Arriving at an onsen hotel in Hakone where my reservation was on a board outside.
My preferred way of enjoying a traditional hot spring experience is to book a stay at a Japanese guesthouse (casual options are categorized as minshuku while a fancier accommodation is labeled a ryokan) which has an on-site onsen. This provides just the right mix of intimacy, tradition, and relaxation in my personal opinion. Many of these guesthouses have facilities that are open to the public during the day but close down and are reserved for exclusively for guests after a certain time. The traffic in the onsen is much lighter and many places even allow private booking such as those discussed above.
There's plenty of options to consider, so find the one the works best for your needs, interests, and wallet!
Step 2: Take Off Your Shoes
This is the second step to Japanese onsen but really it's the second step to Japan in general. When it comes to many indoor spaces in Japan that are more private or intimate - shoes come off.
Onsen facilities are no different. While every facility is set up differently, it's generally pretty easy to denote when it's time to remove your shoes. Those who have entered before you will have taken their shoes off, so you'll often find an area with shoes left on the floor or placed into cubbies. Some facilities will have a sign out notifying when to remove shoes and others will leave out a slew of plastic slippers to use when your shoes are off.
Much like the nudity, this isn't a negotiable rule. You want to onsen? Shoes off.
Step 3: Grab A Towel & Enter Your Gendered Area
At most facilities there's someone running the show - either staff taking payment at the front reception area or staff from the hotel/onsen making sure everything is running smoothly. The staff will generally provide you with a large towel, a smaller towel, and occasionally a yukata (robe). Take these with you into the changing area.
If you've booked private time in an onsen, you can do mixed sex bathing with your partner, friends, or family members. Otherwise the facilities are segregated by gender.
The Japanese kanji for man (left) and woman (right).
Entrances to the gender segregated-areas are generally noted by curtains hanging over the doors or wooden signs. The Japanese kanji for "man" and "woman" are above and at a minimum each door should display one of these kanji to clarify which area you should be entering. Often the curtains/signs will also contain the English words for man and woman and even be color coded with hetero-normative color configurations - blue for men, red/pink for women.
Throwing back to the previous discussion on nudity and transgender, intersex, or genderqueer travelers - please note that Japanese onsen are not a location where they actively recognize the full spectrum of gender and gender identity. Unless you are frequenting an onsen that has specific policies or advertising that denotes otherwise, the staff and patrons will expect you to use the facility that conforms with the gender identity that you physically most closely resemble.
Ultimately what door you choose to walk through is up to you, but please be aware of how the locals may react to your choice and note that you may be asked to leave by staff if they believe you've entered the "wrong" side.
Step 4: Get Naked
Ahhhhh. Here's the part the gives me the most anxiety - getting butt ass naked in front of strangers. If you're someone who is completely comfortable with their own body and have no qualms letting your naughty bits swing in the breeze - bravo! Let me start a slow clap for you!
Sadly I'm not one of those people, and I know that many of my fellow travelers (LGBTQ or not) have similar reservations. My advice to you is this - it's like getting into a pool. The more slowly and tentatively you do it, the more painful the experience will end up being. The best course of action is to take a deep breath and metaphorically diving right into the pool - drop trou, free the tatas, and just get it over with!
The changing area of an onsen on Lake Ashi.
Depending on how fancy your facility is, you will either find baskets inside the changing area or perhaps you were given a key with a numbered tag on it to denote a specific locker for you to use. You can toss all of your clothing into the basket or locker along with your large towel. Keep your small towel with you.
Note - if you brought a smart phone or camera, leave it here as well. Onsen are strictly a no-photo facility unless you have permission from the property owners or are using the onsen under the private usage option discussed earlier. Also, there really isn't going to be anywhere dry to keep your device and the atmosphere inside the onsen proper is quite humid, i.e. not ideal for electronics.
Step 5: Scrub A Dub Dub
Once you're fully naked and done worrying about whether everyone can see your belly fat/neck roll/that ugly birthmark on your lower thigh, move through the doors to the next area.
As the onsen is a shared use facility, you'll be required to give yourself a very thorough cleaning prior to entering the water. No one wants to share the water with someone who didn't take the time to wash the day's grit and grim away!
Don't expect individual shower stalls, though this is occasionally available. Chances are you'll find a system very similar to what's shown above - several stools set up in front of handheld shower nozzles with mirrors and large shampoo, conditioner, and soap dispensers. A bucket is often provided at each station.
You should start by using the shower nozzle to rinse off the stool and the bucket before using them. Next, use all of the provided items to give yourself a very thorough cleaning. I'm not talking a cursory run over the skin here people - get into the nooks and crannies and make sure you're serving sparkling clean realness. If a bucket is not provided to fill with water, use the nozzle and soap to give yourself a proper washing. Of course you should use the shampoo to clean your hair just as thoroughly. If you have long hair, use a hair tie to collect your hair into a bun on the top of your head, well above the shoulder line. Having your hair (even clean!) dip into the water is a no-no.
Step 6: Place Towel On Head or Off To Side
One thing people always ask me the first time we onsen together is what to do with the small towel that you brought with you. That's really up to you. People do a variety of things with it, but the one thing that you should not do is let it fall into the water. Some folks use it as a washcloth, others save it for use later on. Some bathers will place their towel off to the side in a designated area that should be easy to identify since you'll see a grouping of small towels. Others will fold it up and place it on top of their heads or tie it like a bandana. Be creative, just don't dip it in the water.
Step 7: Enjoy the Japanese Onsen, Don't Pass Out
It's time people. The moment has arrived. It's time to enter the onsen!
Whether the spring has stairs to facilitate entry into the water or you simply have to walk up to the edge and step in, your only task now is to get into the water and relax.
Japanese law actually categorizes onsen into four categories based on the temperature of the water. A "cold spring" is anything below 22°C/77°F. A "warm spring" is anything from there up to 33°C/91°F. After that is a "hot spring" which runs to a threshold of 41°C/106°F. Anything above that is categorized as an "extra hot spring". If you're at a small onsen, there's likely only one spring to use with a consistent temperature. Larger onsen facilities can have several types of baths that you can move around and experience. They'll feature various temperatures as well as different mineral contents with associated "benefits".
Just a reminder that the onsen is not a pool - swimming is impolite. You should quietly sit and enjoy the ambiance. You can chat quietly if you desire. Do not dip your head into the water. As indicated above, your hair and head should not enter the water at all. This is a neck-down activity.
Onsen is similar to a sauna in that you should be very careful to monitor yourself to ensure you are not overheating. If it's your first time experiencing an onsen it can be very easy to overdo things on the first go and end up getting lightheaded or even passing out. I recommend staying in for no longer than 4 or 5 minute at a time if you're doing this for the first time, just to be safe. You can exit the water and walk a bit, or remove yourself from the water and sit on the edge of the springs. If you're in a larger onsen, move on to one of the cooler pools.
You'll be sweating a bit so make sure you're well hydrated prior to entering the onsen and make sure you drink plenty of water after you've finished as well.
Step 8: Dry Off & Cover Up
Once you've had your fill of soaking and relaxation, it's time to dry off and head out of the onsen. If you've set your small towel off to the side, grab it. If you kept it with you the whole time, snatch it off your head and use it to dry off prior to exiting the hot spring area. It may be difficult but make sure you do the best you can to make sure you're not dripping copious amounts of hot water off of your body before you go back to your clothing.
Back at your locker/basket, use the larger towel to do a proper dry off. Once done, put your clothes back on and throw the towels into the hamper where everyone else has left theirs. If you're staying at a ryokan or minshuku, you may have been provided a yukata (robe) to use in the building or outdoors if their onsen facility is located slightly off property. If that's the case, put on your robe (securing your obi around your waist tightly so you don't have a Janet Jackson-esque nip or dick slip) and head back to your room. If the yukata is provided to you, you can expect that it's acceptable to wear it around the guesthouse to and from the onsen.
So that's that, folks!
I hope you found this helpful. As I mentioned before, the tradition of Japanese onsen is one that I grew up with as a child and one that I continue to enjoy as an adult every time I return to my homeland. It's an amazingly intimate and relaxing way to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan, providing you an outlet at the end of a long day and also putting you in close proximity with locals. Strike up a conversation, throw your towel on top of your head, and see where you end up.
If you have questions about experiencing onsen as an LGBTQ traveler (or even if you're not!), please feel free to use the "Contact Me" button at the top of the page to send me a note. I'm more than happy to talk about my experiences to help you feel more comfortable or make an informed decision.