Naked etiquette: From onsens in Japan to jjimjilbangs in South Korea

Naked etiquette: From onsens in Japan to jjimjilbangs in South Korea

How – and when – to take it all off in front of total strangers on holiday.

onsen japan do you have to be naked etiquette CNA Lifestyle nozawa

Travelling the world is about exploring new cultures and traditions. And sometimes you do that completely naked, surrounded by equally naked locals, wearing nothing but your warmest smile.

Many countries around the world regard public bath houses, spas and saunas as a much-cherished part of their heritage and way of life. If you come from a country where one normally mingles with the community fully-clothed, throwing caution and your underwear to the wind might take some getting used to.

But contrary to what you might think, going au naturel won’t embarrass you in front of the locals as much as your lack of etiquette might. For instance, what is customary in a Japanese onsen may be downright rude in a Turkish bath house.

Just what is a newbie nudie traveller to do?

Here is a compilation of popular practices around the world – from Japan and South Korea to Turkey and Sweden – to help you figure out how naked you should be, and when to lose your towel.

Happy travels! Don’t send pictures.


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Make sure you wash yourself thoroughly before entering the onsen. (Photo: Red Duck Post)

There is only one way to enjoy these hot, thermal baths: Take it all off. The only piece of fabric you are allowed to bring into the bath is a teeny tiny towel. But we'll get to that later.

If you're not keen to expose yourself to the opposite sex, opt for a gender-specific onsen. But take note of the time as some onsens designate hours – instead of separate facilities – for each gender. Think of it as naked timeshare.

The Japanese are very serious about hygiene. Before you enter the water, you must wash your body and hair thoroughly first – usually in a very public washing area. Using the small towel provided, sud up with the soap and shampoo provided. Do this while seated on a stool as it is very rude to splash soap and water onto your fellow bathers.

And, really, no one needs a show, so sit down.

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Towels are only worn in the onsen when hosting Japan Hour or posing for photos like this one. (Photo: Japan National Tourism Organization)

A large towel may be provided for you to dry yourself before you enter the onsen but that's it. Do not get into the water with the towel wrapped around you – the only exceptions are the TV hosts on Japan Hour.

Unlike the western notion of a bath, the onsen is for soaking, not washing. This is not the place to scrub yourself with aforementioned teeny tiny towel. In fact, don't let the towel touch the water at all. The locals usually place theirs on their heads. Think of it as a hat.


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Make friends so you can use their private saunas in the countryside. (Photo: Pixabay)

In Sweden, you'll have to leave your clothes and inhibitions at the sauna door – or in the locker, to be precise. Don't try to smuggle in a T-shirt. In a room full of naked bodies, you will draw more attention to yourself than someone trying to cut the soft-serve queue at IKEA. The same no-clothes rule applies whether you are in a luxury ski resort or public pool.

The only time you can get away with wearing a bikini or Speedos (yes, a Speedo – not even board shorts) is when it is a mixed-gender sauna. In fact, the Swedes dislike the feeling of clothes sticking to the skin so much that purists even consider swimwear unhygienic.

And do not ask for birch branches. Those are used in Finnish saunas and in some parts of Russia

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The higher you sit, the warmer it is in the sauna. (Photo: Pixabay)

Like the Japanese, the Swedes cleanse their bodies first before stepping into the sauna. They may hop into the shower or take a dip in a nearby lake – naked. After that, most people wrap themselves in a towel before making their way into the sauna.

Once inside, they'll lay the towel on the wooden bench, and sit or lie down on it. It is more comfortable than making direct contact with a hard surface. Also, sweaty bum prints are kinda gross.

A word of advice when you’re in a box full of nude people: Keep your eyes at head level if someone talks to you, or focus on the views outside. Most people are there for a little peace and quiet, so minimise the chatting if there are other sauna users around. 


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Friends who sweat together, stick together. (Photo: Hot Deals)

A Korean spa or jjimjilbang is like Vegas for spa enthusiasts. Besides the regular treats such as massages, saunas, and body scrubs, you can also catch a movie, take a nap in a salt cave and, because they are open 24 hours, you can even spend the night for an extra fee. Just not all in the buff.

You'll be given a towel, T-shirt and shorts after getting your payment sorted. But they’re not for you to wear now – you need to get naked (don't even think about sneaking in with your swimwear) and wash up in the same-gender communal showering area.

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How hot can you get? Take your pick. (Photo: Dushan Hanuska)

Once you're nice and clean – and still naked as the day you were born – head over to the soaking pools. These can be indoors or outdoors, and each has water of a different temperature ranging from 38 to 42 degrees Celsius.

Like the onsen, you are only allowed to bring with you a small towel to dry off with. The cutest way to use it? Roll it into a Princess Leia-esque headgear. (Google "korean towel sheep head” and have a giggle.)

To up your jjimjilbang game, opt for a seshin scrub by an ajumma (a respectful Korean term for “auntie”). This is not a pampering session. The ajumma is dressed in her bra and panty – and she gets really aggressive with her scrubbing mitt. She will be merciless but you will never have smoother skin afterwards.

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We reckon this is in Fahrenheit instead of degrees Celsius. (Photo: Rebecca Milner/Lonely Planet)

When you move on to the saunas or hanjeungmak, that’s when the T-shirt and shorts come in. Not just because both sexes use the same facilities but also because you don’t want to burn your bits to a crisp.

The hanjeungmak can be made of stone, salt, clay or jade (for different health benefits, apparently) – and are heated to between 15 and 50 degrees Celsius, including the floor. Socks are actually needed to guard your feet before entering the hottest kiln. It may be hot enough for pottery but, yay, accessories!


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The "pillowcase" that your attendant uses to to work up a mean foam for simultaneously washing and massaging you. (Photo: Cemberlitas Hamami)

Here’s an example of when you don’t want to show the locals how well-travelled you are by casually “dropping trou”. Nudity is taboo in Turkish culture.

Meet the peshtemal, a thin, checkered, cotton sarong-like cloth that affords modesty to both men and women, whether they're disrobing in the common changing area (you can't just kick off your boxers), or receiving their full-body scrub in the middle of the steam room.

In most cases, the steam room is completely covered in marble or tiles, and topped with a high dome. In the middle is the gobektasi, a raised, heated platform, where the "bath" happens.

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Get used to the idea of being naked because your Turkish scrub, massage and bath all take place on the marble platform in the middle of the room - and in plain view of everyone. (Photo: Cemberlitas Hamami)

The appearance of your attendant signals the start of the Turkish bath. If you're not already on the gobektasi, you'll be directed to lie down on it. With your peshtemal still on, your attendant will pour very warm water on you and soap you up. Instead of oil, your attendant uses a pillowcase to work up a mean foam, simultaneously washing and massaging you.

Very warm water is thrown on you again to rinse off the foam before you’re vigorously scrubbed down all over with a coarse wash mitten, sloughing off all of your skin – dead or otherwise.

A dousing of shockingly cold water closes your freshly scrubbed pores, signalling the end of your Turkish bath. You are then wrapped in dry, clean towels, and ushered to the waiting area to hydrate and recover – usually in a very relaxed albeit slightly shocked state.

Source: CNA/bk(pw)