One of our family’s favorite winter activities is visiting an onsen (hot-spring bath). To many Japan newbies, the thought of bathing with strangers at a public bath seems off-putting — especially with kids. Yet for us and millions of other residents, it’s an ideal way to warm up and spend time together on a winter afternoon.

For those new to the ritual, here are a few rules involved in family onsen etiquette. Make sure that both you and the kids properly bathe before stepping into the tubs. There’s always ample space to wash up before a soak, and it’s crucial that you do, too. Babies and toddlers wearing diapers are not allowed in the tubs. Most onsen are divided into male and female sections. In most cases, however, kids under 7 can accompany a parent or guardian of either gender. Most establishments have soap, shampoo and towels available, but quality, price and availability vary. We tend to bring our own (small) towels and visit places that provide the suds for free. We also usually bring an extra set of clothes for our kids, as our kids often arrive caked in dirt or sweat from the day. It’s nice to put on dry, clean clothes before stepping back out into the cold.

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