Our family trip to the public bath in Kyoto.

In my family, we love a good hot tub. We like to sit and soak and talk to each other, or just enjoy the very relaxing feeling of extremely hot water. We don’t even want to go in unless it’s at least 104 degrees, because it’s just not worth it to us. Maybe it’s a California thing? I don’t know.

Whatever the reason, we knew we would love Japanese Onsen, or hot springs/public baths.

Right now we are staying at a small guest house in Kyoto (review coming soon)! At around 5 pm this afternoon, we walked over to the neighborhood Onsen. I was feeling very self-conscious because I look so different; I was also feeling nervous because I have a small tattoo on my ankle, and these are apparently not okay at any Onsen. I had covered mine up with bandaids, but I worried that maybe that wouldn’t be enough.

We brought towels and toiletries, and we left our swim suits behind – at an Onsen, you have to get completely naked. Since my daughter Bird is at a self-conscious age (she’s eleven), she decided to stay behind at the guest house while the rest of us bathed. (The fact that we let her stay by herself was a big deal, but that is a different post).

Once we arrived, we removed our shoes and put them in cubbies, then we paid 410 yen each (Josh and me), plus 130 yen for our son Bear at the front desk (about $10 total).

I went into one side of the Onsen, while Josh and Bear went into the other side. I wished that Bird would have come with us so that I wasn’t alone! I moved slowly so that I could study what the other women were doing, as I didn’t want to make any serious or shocking mistakes. Luckily a couple of other women had walked in just ahead of me, so I simply followed them.

I made it into the bath area with no problems, but as soon as I sat down to cleanse and scrub my body (part of the process), I was in a little bit of a bind, because I didn’t want to stare at other women as they bathed, but I also wasn’t exactly sure of the correct procedures (was it okay to shave my legs? should I turn the washing bowl upside down afterward? should I cover the stool with my towel before I sat down?).

I made it through somehow, and no one seemed to be staring at me either. Maybe I just didn’t notice. At any rate, I was finally ready to go into the baths when I noticed a big sign that read, “denkiburo” (“electricity baths”). This completely freaked me out. I had read about these before: a low-level electric current runs below the water surface on either side of the bath. This creates a tingling sensation (electrocution!) while you are in the water. No way was I going to try this. However, I knew that Josh was definitely going to try it – he’s a thrill seeker – and that he would probably let Bear try it, too.

I tried not to think about that, and instead focused on the other wonderful hot tubs and cold pools at the Onsen. At this point, it was a challenge to relax, but the tubs and pools were truly fantastic. There was one made from wood with a cascade of water rushing in from a spigot, a very deep one that was at least 105 degrees, a couple of outdoor stone pools, and a few others. There was also a sauna, which was – incredibly – too hot for me.

We had agreed to meet outside in an hour, but I was actually done before then. Since I was by myself, I didn’t have anyone to talk to; I kept imagining Bear and Josh getting shocked by the current; I wondered if Bird was okay; and I was self-conscious about my wild hair and ankle tattoo. So I sat in the waiting area and drank water for the last twenty minutes…which was actually very nice.

Of course Bear and Josh were fine (and of course Josh had let Bear soak in the electric bath). We walked back to the guest house and Bird was fine, too. And I was fine.

In fact, I was great.

We are loving Kyoto.

Have you ever been to an Onsen? What did you think? If you haven’t been, would you go?


  1. If I had to do this as a family I would be scarred for life. No thank you.

    • Points Pixie says

      Tyler – Ha ha 😉

      We are used to it from hot-tubbing. Again, maybe it’s a California thing? It’s normal for me so I don’t know.

  2. This seems like a very interesting part of Japanese culture which I wish I could have the chance to try but assuming tattoos bar one from entering I don’t think I have a shot. So thank you for at least enlightening me through your experience.

    • Points Pixie says

      William – Sure. It was a really interesting experience (Josh and Bear LOVED it as well). There are other places in the world where you can do this – I’ve been in a traditional Hamaam in Morrocco, for example – so you’ve still got a shot at it. 🙂

  3. Alexandra says

    Yes sort of. I went to one in New Mexico. It was really very unique and I have recently even read an article about many others in various areas of Japan. Wondering if there is a tour that can take one to Japan to visit the various onsens. This may be your calling. Great post!

  4. The web site onsenjapan.net is a good source for locating onsen and learning their etiquette.
    The web site tattoo-spot.jp lists onsen that do allow tattoos. It’s in Japanese, so you’ll have to enter the web address into google translator to read it in English.
    You have such interesting postings! Can’t wait to hear more about your trip!

  5. Christophe says

    I am enjoying your posts as I did a similar trip to japan in April. Including flying EVA in business on miles.
    In Kyoto rent a bike and get lost … And go up to the roof of the train station.
    Go to a baseball game – do it – that will be an unforgettable experience. We went to see the Hiroshima carps. Buy a set of balloons at the stand and release th during the game at the same time with the all stadium.

  6. I’ve never been but would be interesting to try. Love the adventures!


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