The Strict Hair Rule Many Tourists Visiting Japan's Onsen Bath Houses Aren't Aware Of

If you're planning a trip to Japan, you've probably already heard about the famous onsen baths. Onsens, or natural hot springs, can be found all around the country, from major tourist hubs to Japan's many hidden-gem cities. And you don't have to bathe outside next to a mountain to enjoy them; mineral-rich hot spring water can be found on tap at various ryokans (traditional inns), bathhouses, and spas across Japan. Visiting an onsen is a bucket-list item for many tourists visiting the East Asian country, but the experience can go south if you don't follow the local norms regarding hair etiquette.

Among the many things tourists should never do when visiting Japan, hopping into an onsen bath with long hair kept down is one of the lesser-known faux pas. Making this mistake could attract some disapproving looks — not ideal if you're heading to the onsen to relax. Long hair must be tied up in a ponytail or other updo to keep the water clean and free of stray strands.

If you have short hair, don't worry too much about the strict hair rule. You aren't expected to wear a swimming cap or other headwear, provided your hair isn't touching the water. On that note, remember to keep your head above the water at all times when sitting in the baths.

Do you need to wash your hair?

When visiting an onsen in Japan, it's crucial to wash in one of the showers before hitting the baths. However, if you're expected to keep your hair out of the bath water, how important is it to wash your hair first? The answer might vary depending on who you ask. There's no hard-and-fast rule at most onsen or sentō (public bathhouse) facilities, but you'll generally find that most locals wash their hair before bathing.

This may be due to the custom of daily hair washing in Japan, a habit that most women and folks with long hair have adopted without a second thought. Shampooing also ensures your body is completely clean from head to toe before you spend time in the onsen water. You'll find shampoo and conditioner stocked in the showers at most onsens (or available for a small fee in no-frills bathhouses), though you're free to bring your own products if you wish.

If you have only one or two designated hair washing days per week and you'd rather skip the shampoo during your onsen visit, chances are no other bathers will mind. Thoroughly cleanse the rest of your body, and bring a shower cap for your head if needed. Most importantly, don't forget to pack your hair tie or claw clip to keep your unwashed hair out of the water.

Don't forget to wear your towel on your head

Long hair isn't the only thing that should stay out of the water during your trip to the onsen. To be a considerate tourist when visiting Japan, it's also important to follow traditional towel etiquette. At most onsens, you'll be given a small towel to scrub yourself with after the shower, and given that it's used to cleanse your body, the towel is seen as being too dirty for the baths. However, you'll want to hold onto it until you're done bathing in case you need a follow-up shower after soaking in the shared waters. Moreover, many bathers use the towels as a modesty covering when walking from one onsen to another.

If you're unsure what to do with your towel once you enter the bath, the locals have a simple solution: Plop the towel on top of your head. This keeps the towel out of the water and ensures you don't have to leave it on the ground or another unsanitary spot. If you're prone to heat-related dizziness, try rinsing your towel in cold water before placing it on your head to help regulate your body temperature. Otherwise, simply fold the towel into a sandwich-sized square and rest it on your head once you're in the water.