The Japanese love to relax by soaking a super hot bath, and a trip to the bath house is a fun way to experience Japanese culture. Baths can be divided in to onsen which have water piped in from a natural hot spring, and sento which use normal tap water that is heated by a boiler. This article will introduce you to the basics of bathing Japanese style.
Where to find a bath
Almost every town will have public sento baths, and the high volcanic activity in Japan means that many towns and cities will also have onsen baths. Onsen baths are a particular attraction of rural areas of Japan, and Japanese tourists will often plan their trips to take in notable onsen. Onsen are supposed to have health benefits and there are several divisions of onsen depending on the exact minerals carried in the water.
Public onsen are marked on map with a symbol of a oval with steam rising from it ♨. In some rural areas it is possible to find totally natural onsen in rockpools or bubbling up from holes in the ground.
Many hotels, ryokan and guesthouses will have a bath. Larger hotels may have indoor and outdoor baths as well as separate baths for men and women. Smaller establishments may only have one bath, in which case there will be certain times devoted to each sex. If you are travelling with a child, they may accompany you in to the bath even if they are not the same gender as you. Some rural baths offer mixed bathing but these are rare.
Some sento and onsen complexes also have private or family baths. These are can be reserved in advance and mean families or groups can bathe together without having to split up. Very upmarket hotels or ryokan may also have bathing facilities in the room so that guests can bathe in private at any time.
Tattoos are uncommon in Japan and are often associated with the Yukuza criminal gangs – as a result many more traditional bath houses will not admit customers with a tattoo. If you have a tattoo it may be best to book a private bath to avoid embarrassment.
Taking a Bath
You will first enter the changing room. There will be baskets and lockers here where you can leave your clothes and your main towel. Traditional baths are taken naked, so do not wear a swimsuit (some modern themed baths that are more closely related to waterparks allow swimsuits and are generally not gender separated). You will often be given a small towel which you can use to cover yourself while walking from the changing room to the bath area.
Next to the main bath will be a row of small stools with shower heads or buckets of water. Sit on a stool and fully wash yourself before going near the main bath. Shampoo and soap is usually provided. As everyone shares the same water it is very important you are clean before entering the bath. Rinse off any soap suds being careful not to splash the soapy water in to the main bath.
You can now get in to the main bath and relax. The bath is meant to be a calming experience, so quiet chatting and laughing is allowed (many Japanese go to baths with friends or colleagues specifically to socialise) but rowdy behaviour is frowned upon. Some splashing or shouting is tolerated from young children, but in general they are expected to not disturb other bathers (another reason why family bathrooms have become common!)
Some baths allow you to take the small towel in with you – you can lay this across your lap if you are shy. However some baths do not allow towels in the water in which case they should be left on the side or you can balance the folded towel on your head. Watch the other bathers and copy what they do.
The water can be very hot, so get in slowly and try not to move too much. After about 10 minutes or so get out and wash again on the little stool. Make sure you tidy up your area afterwards so it is pleasant for the next bather. If you wish you can go back in to the main bath for another soak. If you are using an onsen bath supplied by hot springs do not rinse yourself when you get out for the final time; leaving the water on your skin will help you absorb the minerals and gain the health benefits associated with onsen bathing.
Communal bathing is very safe, although you may wish to avoid putting your head under the water in an onsen as the naturally heated water can contain bacteria which can cause infection if it enters your mouth, nose or ears. You are also recommended to avoid communal baths if you have open wounds or sores.
Onsen Key Words and Terms
Rotemburo – Outdoor onsen in the grounds of ryokan
Notemburo – Outdoor onsen with natural surroundings
Ashiyu – Shallow onsen bath used just for soaking your feet
Kashikiri – Private family bath
Kazokuburo – Literally “Family Bath”, another word for private bath