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Japanese onsen etiquette for first-timers

This ancient ritual is an absolute must-do while in Japan, but there are some rules you need to know.

The Japanese ritual of onsen, bathing in communal baths heated by the seething core of the Earth and containing natural health-giving minerals, is a must-experience at least once in your life.

Scarred by millennia of seismic activity, Japan has well over 2500 onsen scattered across the landscape.

And in the northern prefecture of Akita, at the foot of Mt Nyuto, Taenoyu Ryokan presents a glorious setting in which to enjoy the ancient tradition.

Tucked into an unassuming bend in the road, surrounded by beech trees and perched on the edge of a fast-flowing river, the inn offers traditional Japanese hospitality; shoes are discarded at the door, they serve delicious regional specialities such as kiritanpo (a tube made out of pounded rice and toasted over an open hearth), and futon are laid on the floor for sleeping (one modern concession is fast and far-reaching wi-fi).

But the crowning glory is the outdoor onsen, a steaming golden pool overlooking the stunning surrounds.

The water is jarringly hot at first but eventually becomes comforting; the fresh mountain air cools the brow (in winter, the surrounding snow can be scooped up and used as a cold compress).

But, as with almost everything else in Japan, there are strict rituals involved, so if you are considering indulging in an onsen, here are a few things to remember:

  • Always wash before entering the onsen – there are usually always shower facilities attached, complete with low stools and small basins, where you need to wash thoroughly from top to toe.
  • Onsen bathing is done naked, so take a deep breath and check your embarrassment at the door.
  • Onsen can be mixed, so men and women bathe together; change rooms are segregated according to gender, though. Many onsen have times throughout the day when it is women only.
  • No cameras please – firstly it is rude and secondly it disturbs the tranquillity of the experience.
  • There’s no need to take too much paraphernalia into the baths – all you need is a small washcloth.
  • Don’t bathe for too long – the temperature of the water is scoldingly hot and can affect you if you spend long periods submerged in it.
  • Drink lots of water after a soak to avoid dehydration.

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