When visiting a Japanese hot spring for the first time you might wonder if you can wear a towel in the onsen or if it is okay to keep yourself wrapped in a towel during your soak. In the past few months, I have received so many questions about it that I have decided to write a detailed guide about proper onsen etiquette and all the rules regarding the usage of towels in an onsen.
Generally, you can’t wear a towel in an onsen and your towel should never come in contact with the shared hot spring water in order to keep it as clean and hygienic as possible. However, there are a few hot springs, mostly natural outdoor and mixed-gender onsen baths, where women can wear a towel.
I guess the main reason behind your question is the fear or worry of being in your birthday suit in front of strangers. So down below you will not only find a more detailed explanation of why you can’t wear a towel in an onsen but also a list of 5 onsens where you are allowed to wear a towel. If you are interested in onsen where you can wear a bathing suit you might also want to check out my other post geared towards shy foreigners.
Why You Can’t Wear a Towel in an Onsen
The reason why you can’t wear a towel in an onsen and why it is bad manners if you dip your towel in the hot spring water is hygiene. Since you are sharing the same bathwater with other people it is important to keep the water as clean and sanitary as possible.
Nowadays most hot springs provide their guests with freshly washed towels, however, in the past people used to bring their own towels and who knows when they washed it the last time or what kind of laundry detergent they used. But even a freshly washed or new towel could pollute the onsen water with its fibers or chemicals.
Always remember that the purpose of an onsen is not only to cleanse your body but to relax your mind and to soak in the health and beauty benefits of the hot spring. That’s why the owner, especially of renowned hot springs, tries everything to keep their water not only clean but as natural as possible. Instead of contaminating it with chemicals, even if they are allowed by the government and non-toxic, they do their best to maximize the healing powers and benefits of the hot spring water by preserving its natural state.
5 Onsens Where You Can Wear a Towel
One thing to know about the onsens below is that usually, you can only wear the towel in the mixed-gender baths or the outdoor baths. In the gender-separated indoor baths, the shower area, and on the way from the dressing room to the onsen facilities, you will still be in your birthday suit.
1. Kawayu Onsen (Wakayama)
Location: Tanabe, Near Kumano Kodo & Yunomine Onsen, Wakayama Prefecture
Natural Hot Spring River Where You Can Wear a Towel or a Bathing Suit: Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) is a unique hot spring that flows along the Oto River and turns its riverbanks into natural onsen baths. Everyone is allowed to wear a towel or a bathing suit. You can even dig your own little onsen bathtub with a shovel. However, in winter there is a special giant 40-meter rotenburo called Sennin-buro and during that time you can’t dig your own onsen.
Access: An 1-hour bus ride from JR Shingu Station or a 2-hour bus ride from Kii-Tanabe Station. From Osaka, it takes about 4.5 hours to get to the onsen.
2. Yusakasou Onsen Ryokan (Near Tokyo)
Location: Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture
Mixed Gender Onsen Where Women Can Wear a Towel: Yusakasou (湯さか荘) is an awesome family onsen near Tokyo. It is located in the internationally known hot spring resort Hakone and features a mixed outdoor bath where women are allowed to wear a special bath towel. From 8:00 – 9:00 o’clock, the usually mixed open-air onsen is exclusively for women.
If you are looking for a romantic onsen to spend some private time with your partner this onsen is also a great choice. They offer a day trip (Higaeri) plan for spending 6 hours at their facilities including the usage of the public and private onsen, one of their Japanese-style room, and a traditional Japanese dinner served in your room.
Access: 18 minutes on foot from Hakone-Yumoto Station. From Tokyo, you can get to the onsen in about 90 minutes. Just get on the Shinkansen to Odawara and then transfer to the local Hakone Tonzan Railway.
Price: Day Trip (Higaeri) Plan from ¥11,000 ($102 or 91€)
Website: www.yusaka.jp (Japanese only)
3. Shin-Hotaka No Yu (Gifu)
Location: Shin-Hotaka Onsen, Okuhida, Gifu Prefecture
Natural Unisex River Onsen Bath Where Women Can Wear a Towel: I’m a huge fan of natural onsen baths so Shin-Hotaka No Yu (新穂高の湯) is one of my favorite onsen in Gifu. It is a 100% natural onsen right next to the river. Women are allowed to wear a towel, but men can’t. Sorry guys. However, if you come here really early in the morning you will often be the only person around.
Bathing in the onsen is only possible from November until the end of April. Furthermore, when the river rises too high the onsen might be closed, too.
Access: 1.5-hour bus ride from Takayama in Gifu Prefecture or a 3-hour bus ride from Matsumoto in Nagano Prefecture. Get off at the bus stop called Nakao Kogenguchi.
Price: 300円 (about $3 or 3€)
4. Shin-Hotaka Onsen Yamano Hotel (Gifu)
Location: Shin-Hotaka, Okuhida, Gifu Prefecture
Onsen Hotel With Mixed-Gender Outdoor Baths Where Women Can Wear a Towel: Shin-Hotaka Onsen Yamano Hotel (新穂高温泉 山のホテル) is a beautiful mountain onsen also located in Shin-Hotaka Onsen near Okuhida. The onsen hotel has some of the best outdoor baths in the region and is one of the best mixed-gender onsens in all of Japan. In the onsen’s most famous open-air bath women are allowed to wear a towel.
Access: 1.5 hours by bus from Takayama and 3 hours by bus from Matsumoto
Price: From 15,000円 (about $139 or 122€) per night
5. Awanoyu Ryokan (Nagano)
Location: Shirahone Onsen, Nagano Prefecture
Snow Onsen With Mixed Gender Open-Air Bath Where Women Can Wear a Towel: Awanoyu (泡の湯旅館) is the most famous onsen located in Shirahone. The onsen town is famous for its milky hot spring water and is also one of my favorite Japanese bath salts. As with the other mixed-gender rotenburo mentioned above, female guests are allowed to wrap themselves in a towel.
Access: 70 minutes by bus from Shin-Shimashima Station. From Tokyo, it will take about 3.5 hours to get to Shirahone Onsen.
Price: 1,000円 (about $10 or 8€)
More Onsens Where You Can Wear a Towel
I just noticed that Kawayu Onsen in Wakayama is the only onsen where men can wear a towel, too. Sorry about that. So I want to recommend Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku from my mixed-gender post where everyone has to wear a special bathing garment.
For more, you can also check out my post for onsen where you can wear bathers and if I find other onsens where you are allowed to use a towel during your soak I will link them here, too.
Quick Recap: Onsen Rules & Etiquette for Using Towels
- Take the small towel with you into the onsen’s bathing facilities
- It is common to hold the towel in front of your privates but you are not required to do so
- Use the towel as a washcloth and cleanse your body thoroughly before you enter the onsen tub
- Once you start soaking in the onsen keep the towel out of the water by all means. You can either put it on your head, on a stone or any other place next to the bathtub. Either way is fine just make sure it is entirely out of the water and that it will not accidentally get into contact with it.
- Don’t wear a towel during your soak in the onsen. The only exceptions to this are certain natural outdoor hot spring baths and mixed-gender onsen with special rules.
- If you are not allowed to wear a towel in the onsen never dip the towel in the hot spring water or let it get in contact with the water in any other way.
- Wrapping yourself in the towel when you walk around the onsen facilities is not prohibited or anything but I have never seen any Japanese do this. They usually just hold the towel in front of them to cover their privates.
Relax, embrace your body and the fact that you are in your birthday suit, and just enjoy the soothing onsen soak. Choosing a hot spring with muddy or milky water might help. Still, from my personal experience, I can assure you that I have never had any uncomfortable or embarrassing situation in a hot spring.
The truth is that the Japanese and other people just don’t care as long as you clean your body thoroughly before you enter the onsen and keep the hot spring water as clean as possible during your soak. That’s really the only important thing when visiting an onsen.
One more tip from my own experience. I would suggest you put the towel next to the tub instead of keeping it on your head during your soak because then you can just relax and you don’t have to worry about the whole towel falling into the water by accident.