Onsen Bike Tour | Relaxing Like A Local in the Hot Springs

What is an Onsen?

The Onsen (温泉) is a Japanese bathhouse that sources its water from a local hot spring. Onsen are the quintessential vessel of relaxation in Japan. So much so that even the local monkeys partake in soaking in the warm mineral-rich water from the surrounding volcanoes!

From refined bathhouses of treasured onsen towns such as Kusatsu Onsen to natural onsen baths hidden in the countryside, Japan has no shortage of amazing hot spring experiences! See for yourself why we love soaking in onsen when on a bike tour in Japan.

In room private onsen on the Valleys & Volcanoes Tour.
In room private onsen on the Valleys & Volcanoes Tour.

Discovering A Variety of Onsen on Tour

Onsen come in a variety of styles and their aesthetic designs vary from beautiful masonry and stonework to traditional woodwork. Further, different regions contain distinct minerals in their water. From the vibrant teals of Kusatsu’s sulphuric waters, to the murky crimsons and browns of Ikaho and Akagi Onsen’s iron rich waters, there is a huge variety of hot springs across Japan.

The rooftop onsen overlooking Dogo Onsen Town.
The rooftop rotemburo onsen overlooking Dogo Onsen Town on the Setouchi Sea Tour.

Unique Onsen’s of the Japanese Countryside

Bathhouses often host multiple baths of varying design, materials, and temperature. The art of moving from one bath to another creates a wonderful relaxing experience. Warm baths for long soaks, hot baths to warm the body, cold baths to contrast, and our personal favorite, outdoor baths known as the rotemburo.

The onsen source in Nikko National Park.
The onsen source in Nikko National Park.

Onsen, Sento, Ofuro, Rotemburo | What is the Difference?

While the term Onsen is most well known there are several types of bathing experiences at public bathhouses and in ryokan hotels.

Onsen 温泉

An Onsen will always refer to a bath fed by a natural hot spring source. These are often the most treasured baths in Japan, and in many areas the rich minerals are thought to have strong healing properties.

The famous hot spring source Yubatake of Kusatsu Onsen Town.
The famous hot spring source Yubatake of Kusatsu Onsen Town.

Sento 銭湯

Sento refers to a public bathhouse. Though these can be as simple as a single bath with a few shower stalls, sento can also be a large complex with multiple baths indoors and outdoors, saunas, massage, and more.

These larger complexes are often called Super Sento and are very popular for spending a day at the spa relaxing with friends.

Soaking it all in!
Soaking it all in from high above! [Bespoke Guided Tour in Gunma]

Ofuro お風呂

The word Ofuro refers simply to a stand alone bath. The key distinction here between an Onsen is that Ofuro are not fed from a hot spring source. These baths are instead fed by warmed water.

This is not to say that Ofuro are inferior to Onsen, as many of our favorite bathing experiences are in Ofuro. Many Ofuro baths in ryokan hotels have beautifully crafted baths of Japanese Cedar and volcanic rock.

Nothing beats a relaxing Ofuro at the end of a long day on the bike!
Nothing beats a relaxing Ofuro at the end of a long day on the bike! [Nikko North Alps Tour]

Rotemburo 露天風呂

Rotemburo (sometimes spelt Rotenburo) is a term for a bath that is open air, or outside. The hot water and cool air of a crisp fall evening is a favorite of guests.

Nothing beats a fall evening soak in the rotemburo.
Nothing beats a fall evening soak in the rotemburo. [Ashikaga Self Guided Tour]

Rotemburo can be onsen (hot spring) fed, as well as ofuro style (warmed water). You can even find some great individual Japanese soaking tub rotemburo to prop your feet up after a long day riding!

A well deserved soak after a long day on the road.
A well deserved soak after a long day on the road. [Nikko North Alps Tour]

Onsen Etiquette | Do’s and Don’ts of Bathing in Japan

Bathing in Japan is a unique experience that can be both refreshing and relaxing. If you have never been to a traditional Japanese Onsen or Sento there are three points to remember to make sure everyone has a great experience.

  1. Shower First – In Japan a bath is taken AFTER one has showered. This means the first thing you will see everyone do when they enter the bathing area is to head over to the showers to scrub up. Once you have showered and rinsed off all the suds, you are ready to hit the hot tubs!
  2. Small Towels are “Dirty”, Never put it in the Bath – This one is easy to forget, but a big don’t. In short the small towels you are given to take with you to the bath are used to scrub and clean your body. You will see many sitting with these small towels on their heads, or placing them off to the side of the bath. But you will not see them enter the bath. When in doubt leave your towel safely off to the side far from the baths.
  3. No Head Hair in the Bath – This one goes along the same lines as the towels. This is largely because not everyone fully washes their hair when they take a bath. So if you have long hair be sure to put it up before entering the bath. This also means you should not dunk your head into the bath either.

Using the Onsen |A Step by Step Guide

Below is a guide for those looking for a full walk through of the onsen bathing experience.

Getting Ready

  • While in your room you will find your Yukata Robes and towels either on your main table, or in a nearby closet in the room. One small towel and one larger. Small for taking in with you, big for drying off afterwards.
  • Either don your Yukata robes down, or wear what you have on and change after your bath. Both are fine.
  • Gather your belongings, most ryokan will provide a nice small tote basket/bag to carry your things down in.

Finding the Bath & Changing

  • Baths will be separated by gender, look for red/pink signs for women, and blue/grey signs for men.
  • Enter the changing room for your respective gender. If there is a step up, you will see a shelf for your slippers. Leave them here and continue barefoot to the changing area.
  • There will be a collection of baskets to put your clothes and personal items in. Pick any one you like and change out of your clothes.
  • The only thing you need to bring into the bath area is your small towel. If you would like you can hold the towel over your private parts while walking around the baths and changing area.

Showering Before Your Bath

  • This step is crucial, don’t forget to get nice and clean before entering the bath!
  • Find a shower station and take a seat. Japanese showers are mostly done sitting, but some areas will have standing showers as well.
  • You will find a bucket and a moveable shower head. Traditionally Japanese showered by filling the bucket with warm water and pouring it over themselves. It’s a great feeling and worth a try! You can also use the shower head.
  • Shampoo, soap, conditioner will all be in front of each shower area for you to use as needed. And feel free to use your little towel as a sort of loofa to scrub with.
  • Traditionally as you leave a shower area you would fill a final bucket of water and pour it over your seat to clean it for the next user. Then lay the bucket upside down over the seat or faucet.
  • Be sure to take your little towel with you!

Entering the Baths

  • Once you are all squeaky clean you can head to the baths!
  • If there are multiple baths be sure to try each out. Many will have different temperatures, waters, and bath materials. Also be sure to see if you see any doors to the outside, as there might be a rotemburo outside!
  • Enjoy your soak, and remember whatever you do don’t put your little towel in the bath! For safe keeping a nearby shelf is a good place to put it, or for those who want to live like the locals a delicate balancing act on your head.
  • Some will use the towel to wipe sweat from their brow, another handy trick.
  • Feel free to immerse your body up to your neck, but be sure to keep your head (and head hair) from entering the water. You can also sit with just your feet, ankles, etc in the bath. Many like to alternate between the hot bath and cold showers or cool air outside.

Heading Back

  • Once you have had a nice soak you can head back to the changing area.
  • Optional is to take another quick shower before that. In highly sulfuric or iron rich onsen this is a good idea as you can have a thin layer of sediment on your skin after your bath.
  • Back in the changing area use your big towel to dry off and feel free to use the washbasin & mirrors nearby for any final touches.
  • Change back into your Yukata or clothes and grab all your belongings. Your little towel will now be quite wet, so most like to wear it around their neck or put it outside their bag. Just try not to let it drip on your way out.
  • And that’s it!

How to Spot an Onsen ♨️

While riding around Japan you can keep an eye out for this symbol ♨️. A perfect pictogram of a hot spring and the steam it will give off, this is the calling card for all looking for a warm soak. So, keep an eye out while you ride through Japan and head inside for a post ride soak!

Flying through the amber pines of late fall in Japan.
Flying through the amber pines of late fall in Japan.

RIDE, RELAX, REPEAT

At Bike Tour Japan, we believe that each day deserves an incredible onsen experience. This is why we make sure that all of our ryokan hotels have fantastic baths for our guests to relax in. It’s the perfect way to unwind after a day in the saddle.

Below are a few more of the different types of baths that we visit on our tours.

Adventure awaits!
Adventure awaits!

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