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There are several rules of etiquette to remember when you go to onsen. Knowing them can save you an embarrassing experience.
1. Remove your shoesOnsen always have traditional Japanese floors (tatami) in the change rooms. Wearing your shoes on tatami is one of the most embarrassing things that can happen.
There will be a place for you to remove and store your shoes at the entrance to the change rooms.
2. Use the correct change roomWalking in the wrong change room is more than embarrassing — it can get your arrested. Female change rooms have red curtains. They are often inscribed with the kanji for woman 女 (onna) (but this varies).
Male change rooms have blue curtains and may use the kanji for men 男 (otoko).
3. Remove your clothingVirtually all onsen are nude only (exceptions exist). Remove your clothes and put them in the baskets or lockers provided. The only thing you can bring with you into the onsen is a small wash cloth.
4. Shower firstSit on the little stools and completely shower yourself.
You must be clean before entering the onsen. Soap should never be allowed to pollute the onsen bath.
Some traditional style onsen only provide stools and buckets (no shower). In this case you use the bucket to wash.
5. Put the towel on your headYour wash cloth shouldn't enter the onsen water. You also can't leave it sitting at the showers. Many people place the towel off to the side of the bath beside them. Real onsen pros balance the towel on their head.
6. The detailsThere are minor differences in the rules from onsen to onsen. These may be posted on the walls in Japanese. Watch what people do and emulate it.
7. The importance of impressingIn the 1990s drunken foreign sailors caused some problems at several onsen in a port city in Hokkaido. The onsen responded by banning all foreigners from entering. This was the cause of tensions in Japan. Foreign residents of Japan pointed to such policies as blatant racism. Most Japanese people on the other hand supported the onsen's rights to enforce such policies.
Japanese people are proud of Japan's onsen and generally welcome foreign visitors. These rules of etiquette will help you to impress the locals and come away with good travel karma.
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