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Japan Travel Tips

Perfect Trip Guide

Japan Travel Tips

Perfect trip Guide

Why Do Japanese Bring Towels to Hot Springs?

Onsen (hot springs)

Mon, 21 Aug 2023

Visiting Japanese hot springs is an unparalleled experience. As you prepare to indulge in the healing hot spring water, you'll notice small Japanese towels in the hands of the locals. But why do the Japanese bring these towels to an onsen? And how do these differ from bath towels, pool towels, or beach towels?

Key Takeaways

  • Towels are not mandatory but are used by almost 100% of the Japanese. Try using one when in a Japanese onsen; it's worth the experience!
  • Most hot spring facilities provide towels at a very reasonable price for rent or purchase.
  • Towels are used for washing the entire body and for covering delicate parts of the body. DO NOT SOAK the towel in the bath water.
  • Japanese wash their towels every time they take a bath, keeping them super clean.

The Uniqueness of Japanese Onsen Towel Culture

Onsen logo (hot springs logo)

The culture of bringing towels to the hot springs in Japan is genuinely unique.

What is an Onsen Towel, and Why is it Different?

An Onsen towel is a small cotton towel that plays a variety of roles in Japanese hot spring culture.

We too take beach towels or Hammam Towels to Jacuzzis or pools. However, the size and manner of use of the Japanese Onsen towels are clearly different from how we use our beach towels or pool towels.

Type of Towel



Bath Towel


Drying the entire body after a bath or shower

Beach Towel

Large & Colorful

Relaxing on the beach, sunbathing

Pool Towel


Drying off after swimming

Japanese Onsen Towel


Washing in Japanese hot springs, modesty, use as a pillow

From this comparison, especially for those visiting Japan for the first time, questions may arise: Why the small size? What are the specific customs around this towel? Let's explore!

Japanese Towels vs. Others

The unique characteristics of Japanese towels, particularly Onsen towels, make them stand apart from typical bath towels, beach towels, or Hammam towels. The quality, size, and specific usage contribute to their distinctiveness, reflecting Japanese culture and their deep relationship with hot spring water. Whether for beauty products application or merely covering the body, understanding this towel etiquette will enhance your Onsen experience. Whether you choose a soft cotton towel or a vibrant pattern, the right towel adds to the whole experience. Enjoy the relaxation!

Onsen Towel Culture in Japan

Understanding the cultural importance and proper etiquette surrounding Onsen towels will enhance your Japanese hot spring experience. Whether it's a luxurious cotton towel or a traditional Japanese Onsen towel, it's not just about washing or covering; it's about immersing in Japanese culture.

  1. Tradition: Bringing a towel to the hot springs is a practice passed down through generations. Even paintings from the Edo period (around 1600) in Japan depict people carrying towels to their baths.
  2. Hygiene: Towels are used for washing the entire body before bathing in communal bath water, aligning with Japanese cleanliness standards.
  3. Modesty: Japan values modesty, and towels provide a means to cover parts of the body within the bathing area. They are used to hide sensitive areas of the body.
  4. Comfort: Onsen towels add comfort to the bathing experience, whether used as a pillow to rest your head on in the warm hot spring water or as aid for washing.

How to Use Towels in Onsen: A Beginner's Guide

Japanese Towel

Understanding the role of towels in the hot springs is key to fully embracing the Onsen experience.

Not Mandatory, but Most Japanese Bring a Towel

Bringing a towel to the Onsen is not a must. Therefore, nobody will complain if you enter the hot spring without a towel. However, you'll find that most Japanese bathers carry a towel, a practice rooted in tradition and personal comfort.

How to Use a Towel in the Onsen

The use of towels in Japanese hot spring culture primarily involves three aspects:

Washing the Body Before Bathing

Before entering the hot spring, thoroughly wash your entire body using an Onsen towel. This pre-bath wash is essential to maintain cleanliness within the communal bathing area. While you might notice some people washing after the bath, washing before dipping is a common etiquette.

Covering for Modesty

You can use a towel to cover sensitive parts of the body while moving around the bathing area. However, soaking the towel in the hot spring water is not allowed from a hygiene perspective. The towel is strictly for covering your body while moving.

Comfort as a Pillow

You can fold the Onsen towel to create a comfortable pillow during bathing. Some people even place a towel on their head. Note that placing the towel on the head is not to cool it down. Since you can't soak the towel in the bath water, and there might not be a place to put it, some place it on their head.

How to Use Towels in Onsen: Dos and Don'ts

Here's a detailed list you should know when using towels in an Onsen (hot spring). By following these simple dos and don'ts, you'll enjoy a genuine Onsen experience in Japan.

The Dos


Thoroughly Wash the Towel

Before stepping into the bathing area, make sure to thoroughly wash both your body and the towel. Typically, you'll scrub your body using the towel with some body soap. After washing, rinse the soap from the towel properly.

Bring or Rent a Towel

Many Japanese people bring their towels. However, you can also rent or buy a towel at the Onsen facility. Be aware that rules regarding towels might differ from place to place. Here's a handy table that outlines your options:



Rental Towel

Many Onsen facilities provide rental towels that are washed and kept clean after use.

Purchase Towel

Some places sell towels that you can buy as souvenirs. You can also purchase them at convenience stores.

Bring Your Towel

Many Japanese people own an Onsen towel, and it's common practice to bring it to the Onsen.

The Don'ts


Here are some prohibitions for towel use in the Onsen. Make sure not to do these to enjoy the Japanese Onsen comfortably.

Don’t Soak the Towel in Bath Water

Never allow the towel to touch the communal bath water. Towels in Japan are kept very clean, but they can also breed bacteria. Therefore, do not immerse it in the shared water.

Don't Leave Your Towel Unattended

In the Onsen, always keep your towel near you. Don't leave it unattended at the washing place, for example. Always carry it with you. No place to put it? How about the top of your head?

Don’t Bring Large Towels into the Onsen

Large beach towels, bath towels, or Hammam towels should not be brought into the Onsen. Only small Japanese towels are allowed. This is from a hygiene perspective.

Don't Swing the Towel Around

Don't swing the towel around. It can hit people around you and splash water everywhere. It's very annoying. Refrain from playing with the towel in the Onsen. Remember, the Onsen is not a place to make a racket, but to relax and soothe the body.

Always Return a Rented Towel

If you rented a towel at the Onsen facility, be sure to return it. On the other hand, if you purchased the towel, you take it home.

Common Misunderstanding About Onsen Towels

Many people, especially those visiting Japan for the first time, may have misunderstandings about onsen towels. Let's clear them up.

Onsen Towels Are Unsanitary

Japanese onsen towels are kept very clean. In fact, after use, they are washed and disinfected, maintaining the highest level of cleanliness. Japan is a country blessed with water resources. The Japanese not only wash onsen towels frequently but their clothes too. They may use hot spring water, renowned for its purity, in this process.

You Can Soak the Towel in the Hot Springs

With more television shows and YouTube videos showcasing Japanese culture and hot springs, some images might show reporters wearing towels as they enter the bath water.

Some visitors might mistakenly think that they can soak in the onsen with their towels wrapped around them. This is absolutely forbidden. Those depicted in the media have special permission. Immersing a towel in the hot spring is taboo in Japan from a hygiene management perspective. Keep towels away from communal bath water.

Any Towel Will Do

Unlike pool towels or beach towels, onsen towels are specially designed for use in hot springs and are usually smaller in size. Cotton towel or Japanese towels are typical choices.

The color of the towel is also significant; white is common in Japan. This is because colorful fabrics might lose color when soaked in water. Especially in Japanese hot springs where the bath water is often acidic or alkaline, containing plentiful minerals, the color of a non-white towel might bleed. Therefore, bring a white towel if possible.

Enjoying the Tradition of Onsen Towels

Embracing the tradition of onsen towels is an essential part of the Japanese hot spring experience. For the Japanese, onsen towels are more than mere necessities; they symbolize culture, etiquette, and personal preference. From understanding the proper use and common misconceptions to exploring varieties and making the right selection, onsen towels are vital companions for a hot spring visit.

The use of onsen towels varies depending on the location, time spent, and what you wish to experience. In other words, onsen towels are fantastic tools to add your personal touch to the Japanese hot spring experience. Whether it's a Hammam Towel, cotton towel, or specialized Japanese towels, the choice impacts the entire body experience and can even complement beauty products. Refer to this guide and enjoy your next onsen trip to the fullest!

Frequently Asked Questions About Onsen Towels

  1. Why do Japanese bring towels to the onsen?

    They bring them for personal comfort, modesty, and hygiene. It's a deeply ingrained part of Japanese culture.

  2. Can I soak my towel in the onsen?

    No, soaking a towel in the onsen is not considered proper etiquette.

  3. Do I have to bring a towel to the onsen?

    It's not mandatory, but it's customary. Many onsen facilities offer options to rent or purchase, including specific onsen towels.

  4. Are onsen towels clean?

    Absolutely! They are washed and disinfected after a single use.

  5. What's the difference between onsen towels and beach towels?

    Onsen towels are specially designed for use in hot springs, and are typically smaller, often being cotton towel or specialized Japanese towels. Beach towels, on the other hand, are used for outdoor activities and are larger. White is a common color for onsen towels to prevent color fading due to the mineral content of the hot spring water.

Comparison between Onsen Towels and Beach Towels

colorful beach towel

To better understand the differences, here's a table comparing onsen towels with beach towels:


Onsen Towels

Beach Towels




Design Purpose

Specifically for hot springs

For outdoor activities


Usually white (to prevent color fading)

Can be colorful

Available for Rent

Many onsen facilities offer rental or purchase

Usually not available for rent at the beach

Association with Culture

Deeply connected with Japanese culture and hot spring rituals

Casual, mainly for drying and lying on

Whether it's a soothing soak in hot spring water or a lively day at the beach, the right towel enhances the experience. While Japanese towels, especially those designed for the onsen, cater to the entire body's need for comfort, hygiene, and tradition, beach towels are more about functionality and fun.