Onsen Nara: What You Can Expect From A Japanese Onsen Hot Spring

by Mark and Kristen Morgan
Nara Onsen Ryokan Japanese Hot Spring

“Well, that was … like nothing I’ve done before” were the first words Mark thought to say once he’d been reunited with Kristen. We had officially conquered the onsen in Nara, Japan!

In other words, we had just bathed butt naked with complete strangers.

When we were originally researching Japan, we quickly learned about the onsen craze. We agreed this could be fun and decided to check it out.

Since we had two weeks in Japan, we shopped about to find the best value for money on our route.

There are over 3,000 onsen resorts in Japan, but planning your onsen visit will of course depend on your budget and itinerary. Many Japanese onsens can be expensive and remote!

We were on a low-mid range budget. We couldn’t splash out on luxury accommodation in the countryside overlooking mountains with our very own private Japanese hot springs. However, if your budget allows, definitely go for that experience!

We found Onyado Nono Nara Japanese Onsen Ryokan to be the perfect blend of luxury and relaxation that didn’t break the bank.

The best onsen in Nara has fantastic reviews, is very affordable and the location is also perfect for combining it with a visit to Nara deer park. We can confirm this onsen certainly lives up to its expectations.

Nara: Don’t miss our top 4 things to do in Nara so you can prepare for your visit efficiently!

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What is an Onsen?

Seating area in Onyado Nono with tatmi flooring and mood lighting

An onsen is a traditional Japanese natural hot spring bath.

Japan has over 30,000 naturally occurring hot springs. This is due to it’s geographical position and high amount of tectonic/volcanic activity. Some of these hot spring areas have been opened up to the public for bathing. They are called onsens.

Usually, there are various shallow pools at different temperatures. In Japanese culture, the concentrated amount of minerals and salt in the hot spring water is regarded for its medicinal properties.

The natural hot waters include elements such as sulfur, sodium chloride, hydrogen or iron which can have several health benefits. The main idea is for the hot spring water to have a calming influence on both your mind and body.

However, it is advised for people with any health concerns to consult a doctor before using an Onsen.

The onsen has become a popular tourist activity in Japan and should feature on every visitors ‘to do’ list. Almost every region and resort town in Japan has been built around these hot springs, including Nara.

What Are The Different Types of Onsen?

Hallway in Onyado Nono Nara Onsen featuring tatami flooring

Hot spring baths in Japan can be experienced in many (very!) different ways.

There are gender separated and gender mixed baths, indoor and outdoor baths as well as some public and private baths. A public bath will typically be split into separate areas for males and females, which is how you will find the onsen in Nara.

Some baths are located in remote parts of the country and others can be found within the major cities. Of course some will be cheaper and others will be exclusive private onsens.

You will find that traditional accommodation, commonly known as ryokans are popular in hot spring resorts. These feature ‘tatami’ floors typically made from rice straw and ‘shoji’ sliding doors made from paper.

To get the most out of your Japan experience, you should include an overnight stay at a hot spring ryokan in your itinerary. Trust us, you will feel utterly relaxed and ready for bed by the end!

What is the Taboo Surrounding An Onsen?

Big comfy bed and room view in Onyado Nono Nara Onsen Ryokan

You may have heard about an onsen before researching Japan. We definitely had not. So, what makes the onsen a taboo topic for those who aren’t familiar with its concept?

Ahh, the fact that everyone has to be naked, with no exceptions.

And yes, we mean completely butt naked!

While there are some onsens in Japan where nude bathing is banned, the traditional idea is to bathe nude. So just embrace it!

It’s interesting because to some people this could be common practice. And it may not be of any concern to  those who aren’t used to it. But there are certainly some who will see that it’s naked only and say ‘nope, no way!’

What do you think?

Are There Any Rules at a Japanese Onsen?

Hell yes! The first rule of the onsen is “do not talk about the onsen”.

Just kidding! Kind of…

 There aren’t the typical rules you would find on a sign in a swimming pool like ‘no diving’ or ‘no bombing.’ Onsen rules tend to be on another level!

Once arriving at Onyado Nono Nara, we were given an ‘onsen etiquette’ laminated sheet with rules that had to be strictly followed.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but the rules make perfect sense. It’s is all about respecting other cultures. Some of them you’d think would go without saying but if they had to make a list of rules…

 Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1). You must be completely naked. No ifs, ands, or buts about this.

2). Absolutely NO photos. People are naked. Please respect everyone’s privacy.

3). Always wash before entering. There will be showers in or just outside the bathing area. Be careful not to splash water on any bathers near by. Nobody wants to share a bath with you if you’re smelly!

4). Never put your head under the water. This is mostly to prevent oils and hair products from contaminating the water.

5). Also, keep your tiny towel out of the water. Another measure to keep the water clean. You will usually be given just a small face towel to use in the onsen area.

6). Refrain from washing yourself when in the baths. Onsens are meant for relaxation.

7). Do not talk loudly in the changing and/or bathing area. It is okay to converse with other bathers but keep hushed conversation.

8). No running. This can be very dangerous and may disturb other bathers. Let’s not have an accident.

9). If you have long hair, tie it back or use a shower cap. This will prevent hair from going into the onsen. Also ladies, it is best practice to avoid a hot spring during a menstrual period.

I Have a Tattoo, Can I Go To An Onsen?

Then of course, there is the hot topic of tattoo’s in onsens. Tattoo’s in Japan have long been associated with organised crime outfit, the Yakuza.

However, as tourism in Japan explodes, onsens are experiencing higher numbers of foreigners with tattoo’s wanting to try out the hot springs. Let’s face it, they’re clearly not members of the Yakuza!

The government is also applying pressure when it comes to tattoos. This is interesting as a profit vs tradition conflict of interest ensues. The good news is that many onsens are now much more lenient towards the tattoo rule.

If your tattoo is small, you can always cover it up before you enter the onsen with a plaster or bandage. Onyado Nono Nara is not tattoo friendly, but Kristen covered up her small tattoo with a plastic bandage. Perfect solution.

Check this website out, using the search box to see which onsens are tattoo friendly.

Our Experiences

Mark

In truth, at first I was thinking ‘why on earth would I want to take my clothes off and bathe in a room full of naked men?’

But after reading about the history of the Japanese onsen, it actually isn’t something to be shy about. It’s common practice in Japan. This is meant to be a relaxing experience.

Kristen convinced me it would be a good cultural experience. I guess it’s not every day you get to go to Japan. Okay, I’m on balls. I mean on board.

The changing rooms are separated leading into each respective onsen and I have just parted ways with Kristen.

I’m not entirely thrilled about the idea of bathing stark bollock naked with a load of other blokes right now. But I’ve committed, I can’t back out.

On the plus side, this Onsen in Nara is very clean. The luxurious atmosphere of the changing rooms help me to feel that this is as good an establishment as any to go testicle tapping.

A few seconds later I’m in the changing room. Already there are a few local guys letting it all hang out, having a chin wag and shooting the shit. I mean it’s cool, it’s not like I’ve never seen a penis before.

Taking the Plunge

I place my clothes in the locker. Then I open the door and walk into the onsen. At Onyado Nono Nara, towels remain in the locker room … so it’s just me in all my glory.

Upon entering the room, I can’t help but have a strange feeling of liberation and freedom. At the same time, I am awkwardly conscious that my tallywacker is on display.

Maybe this is just a by-product of the fact it’s not what I’m familiar with? Imagine turning up at your local pool with nothing but goggles on!

One of the things I remember most is the difference in reaction of everyone when I entered.

There were about 5 or 6 local chaps looking so chilled. Their arms spread out on the stone backing with legs akimbo, you know, like they have done it a hundred times before. Not one of them even flinched.

Then there’s the other Westerners already in the Nara onsen. These fellas have certainly not done it a hundred times before!

The 4 Western guys are by themselves, Onyado Nono is like a couples retreat. I know they feel just as awkward as I do. There were obvious sudden head movements away from me. All eyes go straight to the ceiling. Then all the eyes dart to the blank wall to the side. Anywhere but to me.

But, that’s as bad as it gets! After I shower thoroughly, as per the etiquette, I slide into the main hot bath. Perhaps too quickly. Am I just trying to get it over and done with? I have my first bit of privacy in what feels like a year.

All of a sudden, any notion of embarrassment subsides. I start to relax. No one bats an eyelid once I’m in.

Awkwardness Over

A local guy sitting no more than 3 feet from me, immediately starts up a hushed conversation. I remember this is another rule. Quiet is key.

The onsen has 2 heated pools indoors. I decide to try both of them out for size. In this next pool, the water is so shallow. There is absolutely no hiding. After 10 minutes of soaking and another guy coming in to take part in the head to the ceiling routine, I’m ready to head outside for the outdoor pools.

No one is out here. I can see the hot pool steaming as it battles with the cooler air outside. After a few minutes in the outdoor pool, I spot it behind me. The piece de resistance! A deep and rounded wooden tub big enough for just one. This round tub has my name right on it. This is where I finally close my eyes and drift off into the clouds.

Unfortunately, too soon I realize that by being more comfortable here, I was kind of neglecting the whole point of the Onsen in Nara. To that end, I return to the main pool. It’s much busier now. I man up and sit in the pool for about 5 more minutes.

Finally, I say enough is enough. I have seen quite enough totem poles for one day.

Take Home

My conclusion is that if you are considering trying an onsen, you should go for it! Onyado Nono is the perfect place to give it a try. It is a touch on the strange side, especially if you are not used to it. But this is an experience you will always remember. I am pretty sure you will never see any of the people again anyway!

All joking aside, this is a really relaxing undertaking. Of course always remember to follow the rules of etiquette. I’m glad I did it.

I think a private onsen would be the ultimate win. Being outdoors in winter with snow all around you with nothing but mountains or lakes for a view. The only set back is the hit your wallet will take.

Kristen

I have to admit I am a bit nervous. I am not sure what to expect for my first onsen experience.

Mark just went into the all-male changing room and I now go into the all-female changing room. No one else is in here except me. I didn’t know whether to be more relieved or more nervous about that. I begin to look for a cubby where I could put all my clothes.

This was when a group of other women come in from the onsen. They were all naked and weren’t talking with one another. They just smile and continue on their way. It was at this point where I convinced myself to embrace the experience and I start to undress.

I place all my clothes in the little cubby and leave my towel on the shelf. For the first time, I wish the towel was allowed here.

There was a door separating the onsen from the changing room. Now, I am standing right in front of the door and take a deep breath. Here we go. The door swings open…

Nothing to it!

I had made it so much worse in my head. There are only a few women in here. Everyone was just chilling. No one even looks up at me when I open the door. Just a place with absolute tranquility.

I first stop at the showers which were immediately to my right. I remind myself that this was one of the rules. Always shower before and after.

There are stools which you can use to sit and bathe yourself or you can also stand up. I choose the latter. Now washed, I set my eyes on the big pool.

There were two other ladies in the pool who just smile as I wade in. The pool is not deep. Just enough to sit and relax while the water only just covers you. I immediately start to feel relaxed and close my eyes.

When I open my eyes about 10 minutes later, I see it. How could I miss it?! A sauna in Nara onsen. I absolutely love a sauna. Struggling to contain my excitement, I make my way over.

When I open the door to the sauna, I notice this is not an ordinary sauna. Why?! It has a tv. Yes, a tv! I was so distracted from the tv, I did not see the other woman sitting on the top level.

We just exchange quick smiles and I find a spot on the lower level. I am in heaven, feeling free and liberated! Easy to forget I am sitting here stark naked with a stranger.

I enjoy the sauna for a bit, but once I start to get too warm, I decide to explore more of the onsen. I bath once again just to make sure I was obeying the proper rules. It is now time to head outdoors!

Ultimate Relaxation

The stars are out and it is a beautiful night. Everything is completely quiet. I see it in the corner. A tub big enough for just one. Can this place get any better?!

I make my way over to the small round pool. As I sit, the water level rises just to the very edges of the top. A look up to the sky shows the stars clear and omnipresent. I was gone. Ultimate relaxation. So much so I never even notice the few women come into the pool next to me until it was time to leave.

I have no idea how much time has gone by at this point. Mark is going to think I abandoned him! I shower once again getting ready to leave. I open the door to the immaculate changing room and smile politely to the woman getting ready to go into the onsen. 

It is not as bad as I thought. Just smile and relax. The Japanese onsen; it’s easy. Actually, I would do it again.

Book Your Stay at Onyado Nono Nara Onsen

In all honesty, this was one of our best nights in Japan. We slept like babies! So much so we didn’t hear the alarm the next morning and almost missed check out. Consider yourself warned about serious relaxation.

The onsen ryokan hotel in Nara is located right next to the JR Nara station. The ryokan is incredibly clean and the staff are impeccable. The overnight stay includes a delicious complementary ramen supper, use of the beautiful hot spring facilities, free washing (drying has a small fee of 100JPY for 20 mins) and for a top tip – make use of the 2 big massage chairs opposite the entrance to the onsen.

This onsen in Nara is perfect for your first ‘public nudity’ bathing experience because it’s gender separated. This helped us to feel a bit more relaxed at least with the same sex.

There is an indoor and outdoor section with several different pools along with a sauna. Women receive a pin code upon check-in which allow entry to the female side of the onsen. This pin is changed daily. 

Nara’s flagship Onsen Ryokan scores a massive 9 out of 10 on booking.com with over 3,000 reviews. Any of you who use booking will know that’s a very high rating.

Directions JR Nara Station to Onyado Nono Nara Onsen

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