Bathing Culture in Japan
Bathing culture in Japan is a big deal, be it a scenic onsen hot spring or a neighbourhood spa.
Sentō bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water (yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with a honorific (o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Onsen, quite literally “hot springs“, are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there’s a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they’re everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo : outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or just plain old reserved baths kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (uchiyu).
While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry, especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it. Many of these are mixed (kon’yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it’s a rare woman who’ll enter one without a bathing suit these days. Commercial operations with kon’yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs (Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.
Many onsen prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattood visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Sentō and spas
Sentō are public bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (supa), which, in Japan, does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salary men, often with a capsule hotel bolted on the side. As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising “esthe”, “health”, or “soap” — but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese understand the funny ways of foreigners, but there’s one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before
entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done.
Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows:
Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters “man” and “woman” to pick the correct entrance. Men’s baths also typically have blue curtains, while women’s are red. Enter the changing room, leaving shoes or slippers at the doorway; at public baths there may be keyed lockers.
At public baths (sentō), you either pay the attendant directly (often through the changing room entrance, and it’s almost always a woman), or use a vending machine in the entrance to buy tickets for entry and extra items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the attendant. On vending machines, look near the top for the Japanese words for “adult” (otona) and “child” (kodomo). (If the vending machine is too difficult to figure out, you can probably walk in and say sumimasen(“excuse me”) to the attendant and accomplish the rest by gesturing.)
Inside the changing room, there will be rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Pick a locker and undress completely, placing all your garments in the basket. Be sure to place your valuables in lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bath.
You’ll be given a teeny-weeny washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It’s not particularly good for covering your privates (it’s too small) and it’s not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room and take only their washcloth, but women can use these to wrap up with. If you’d like one, ask the attendant for a taoru.
After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool and a bucket, sit down at a faucet, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all foam off once clean. Try not to leave the water running, or get water on other people.
Only now can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it’s unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don’t let your washcloth touch the water, as it’s considered mildly bad form; you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside. When sufficiently cooked, you may wash yourself once again if you’re so inclined and repeat the process in reverse; it’s fine to save washing your hair for after the bath, too, if you prefer. (At natural hot springs, though, you shouldn’t rinse off the bath water, which is full of minerals that the Japanese consider healthy folk medicine.)
Note that the bath is for soaking and light conversation; don’t roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. Japanese people may be a bit wary of foreigners in the bath, mostly because they’re afraid you’ll try to talk to them in English and they’ll be embarrassed that they can’t communicate with you. Just give them a token nod/bow, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwadepending on the time of day, and wait to see if they’re interested in talking to you.
After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (kyūkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, or take a nap.The bathing culture in Japan is only one of the many incredible things to do in this country.