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Your guide to Japan’s restorative winter bath traditions

Japanese hot springs Pin It
Photo: Stocksy/Jake Elko

If you think you’ve made an art of bathing at this point—you’ve soaked in everything from crystal-infused bath salts to apple cider vinegar, after all—think again. No matter how “extra” it may be, your bath game’s got nothing on centuries and centuries of Japanese tub-based traditions.

According to Conde Nast Traveler, the country boasts more than 3,000 public baths, or onsens, which have been a central part of Japanese culture since the eighth century. Each is supplied by a thermal hot spring and by law may not reach temperatures lower than 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Visiting one for a rest, in winter months specifically, is known as a touji, or “hot springs cure.”

There are a few things you should know before dipping into an onsen as a foreigner in order to avoid embarrassing yourself or offending others.

After weeks of holiday overindulgence (and, if you’re being honest, a dash or two of stress), you may be tempted to Google flights to one of these dreamy-sounding all-natural spas ASAP; however, there are a few things you should know before dipping into an onsen as a foreigner in order to avoid embarrassing yourself or offending others.

For starters, onsens are to be enjoyed in the nude. Some are co-ed and some are not, so CN Traveler recommends researching your destination prior to arrival in order to assure your comfort level.

And if you’re doing it for the selfie, you’ll want to try soaking elsewhere. Cell phones are not a customary part of the experience (so consider this a definite option if you’re part of the new generation of analog travelers). Japanese onsens are quiet affairs, often utilized as a time for meditation, so you’ll need to leave your smartphone behind with the day’s dirt in order to comply with tradition.

One final note: Visible tattoos (intuitively inspired or not) are not allowed in most onsens. This is due to the fact that they’ve been traditionally associated with the yakuza, or the Japanese equivalent of the mafia. You don’t have to give up the dream, however, if you’ve got some modest ink. Simply cover them with bandages and you’re good to go for one of these legendary hot-springs soaks.

Can’t make it all the way to Japan? No problem. Adopt the Japanese habit of ofuro instead, which simply requires that you soak in your tub for 30 minutes a day, or use these tips to turn your bathroom into a full-on Japanese spa.