Five rules on how to use Japanese onsens

Get naked with strangers, urges Colin Fukai, who markets Nishimuraya Honkan, one of the top ryokans (traditional hotels) in the hot-springs town of Kinosaki, 150 kilometres north of Kyoto, Japan.

STEP ONE Hot springs (onsens) in Japan are gender separated. Get your bearings before entering. Shower before you step into the waters and remove any make-up.

STEP TWO You can take one small hand towel with you as you enter the hot spring. Never put it in the water, but use it to lightly towel off (wring dry as needed) and for strategic cover as you move between baths. Japanese people are shy by nature, but have few qualms about getting naked with strangers.

STEP THREE A good rule of thumb for bathing time is to allocate 15 minutes maximum for each bath, and take in fluids before and after from the water fountains and soft drink vending machines in the waiting areas – when you have your gear back on. If you have a question, don't hesitate to ask a fellow bather. Japanese people are renowned for their hospitality and willingness to help. They are not renowned for their English skills, but that is all part of the experience.

STEP FOUR Get into and out of the baths slowly. It reduces water movement which might disturb other bathers and lessens shock to the body of sudden heat or coolness.

STEP FIVE Tattoos get a mixed reception in and are forbidden in many Japanese onsens, and every ryokan has their own particularly policy regarding visible tattoos in the hotel's common baths. Some public baths (soto-yu) allow tattoos, others ban them, and there's a growing trend to supply guests with waterproof tattoo covers. Private onsen spas and baths usually allow tattoos. Tattooed travellers should contact their hotel/ryokan directly to ask about its policies. I think the attitude towards tattoo in Japan is starting to shift as more overseas visitors come to Japan.