Translated by Lester Somera
Bath Culture In Japan: What Every Visitor Should Know Ahead Of Time
Written by Mayo Nomura
Taking a bath is an everyday occurrence, but in Japan, there are rules to follow at onsen (hot springs), public baths, or even when soaking in the tub at home. Read on to learn more about rules, what to wear and bring, recommended onsen, and more!
Bathing Manners in Japan - How to Enjoy Hot Springs and Public Baths
While showers are a necessary part of everyday life, the Japanese don’t just take showers, they love soaking in bathtubs. Most people in Japan think of the bathtub as washing away not only their sweat and dirt from the day but their fatigue, too. so it is typically custom to take baths every night.
Everyone can experience this part of Japanese culture by dipping into onsen (hot springs) and public baths. This article is a guide to how to bathe properly and have a relaxed time; continue reading for bathing tips, what to bring to the onsen, and more.
Japanese Onsen - Natural Hot Springs
Picture from Japanese Encyclopedia: Rotemburo (Outdoor Bath)
Hot spring baths, or onsen, are essential parts of the Japanese bathing culture. The water in hot springs must contain a certain amount of minerals and naturally-occurring chemicals to be considered onsen. Hot springs have been used for thousands of years in Japan, once for their medicinal purposes as "toji." They remain popular for their associated many health benefits to this day.
Japan is home to many volcanoes, which is why there are more than 20,000 onsen facilities located across the country. While there are onsens in Tokyo, if you head to more rural areas, you will discover many more onsens, as well as onsen towns where traditional Japanese inns are gathered in abundance.
One way to enjoy hot springs is on an onsen trip. This involves staying at a hotel with hot spring facilities, eating delicious food, and having fun in the surrounding sightseeing areas. There are many hot spring districts in Japan, but some of the most popular are Hakone, Arima Onsen, and Beppu.
Sento, or bathhouses, are baths for public use, not tourist destinations. A simple bathhouse consists of rooms for the baths, separated by gender, and a locker room where you get undressed and dressed. Expect to be there for about one hour in total and spend less than 500 yen (rates vary by city; it is 470 yen to use a sento in Tokyo).
In the past, when bathtubs were not typical features of the average home, it was normal for people to go to a sento to take baths. Even now, some people regularly head to a sento when they want to stretch out in a spacious bathtub, or because they enjoy talking with the other patrons.
A popular type of sento facility is super sento. Super sento offers spa baths, onsens, and many different kinds of bathtubs, as well as saunas. Super sento prices vary from branch to branch and range from 500 to 2,500 yen. Examples of super sentos include Spa LaQua next to Tokyo Dome, and Spa World in Osaka.
Things to Know Before You Use Onsen and Sento
Here we’d like to mention some manners and rules that you should keep in mind when visiting onsens and sento, so as to avoid any misunderstandings or anything unpleasant.
People Who May Be Denied Entry
People With Tattoos
In Japan, tattoos are associated with organized crime regardless of the gender of the tattoo bearer. Even small, cute tattoos may get you denied entry at an onsen or sento (plus pools, waterparks, and public beaches too), so check the onsen’s webpage beforehand to confirm their particular tattoo policy.
Please note that this is changing, and certain parts of Japan may be more lenient than others. For example, Beppu allows people with ink entry. Also, tattoos coverable with tattoo sleeves and stickers are usually acceptable.
People with heart, kidney or lung diseases should consult with a doctor before visiting an onsen.
People With Fevers
While this holds true for regular bathtubs as well, your symptoms may get worse if you visit an onsen, so avoid the situation at all costs.
The heat can cause drops in blood pressure and induce arrhythmia, which may be fatal.
People Who Are Bleeding Or Women On Their Periods
Avoid visiting onsens if you have open cuts to prevent infections. Immune systems weaken during menstruation, which makes it easier to contract a disease or infection.
It’s good manners to avoid using onsens during menstruation, particularly on heavy flow days, even when using a tampon. Onsens, like pools in Japan, do not use powerful disinfectants, so it’s not very sanitary for anyone involved.
Things You Should Take To The Sento
1. A Towel
There are two kinds of towels - large and small - in the dressing areas. At some inns and hotels, however, there are no towels in the dressing rooms, and customers need to bring towels from their rooms.
The small towels are for washing your body in the bathtub, and for drying off before you return to the dressing room. You can bring the small towel into the bathtub.
2. A Rubber Hairtie
Just like if you were visiting the pool, bring a hair tie if you have long hair to keep it from touching the water in the bath.
Sentos - Soap And Shampoo
Most onsen inns and hotels will have toiletries available, but you have to bring your own to a sento––especially if it is a small, local one.
Take your things, and once you’ve handled your shower business, head to the bathtub!
You Don’t Need A Swimsuit
At sentos and onsen, people bathe in the nude. Many places actually prohibit wearing swimsuits in the bath, so there’s no need to bring one. Having said that, some places will allow customers to wear swimsuits. Please check in advance if you must wear a swimsuit for personal reasons.
Take Off Your Shoes Or Slippers
You need to walk through the dressing room barefoot. Take off your shoes or slippers.
After Entering The Sento
Onsens can have very slippery floors due to the ingredients in the hot spring water. Avoid running. Children and pregnant women, in particular, should exercise caution.
Wash Up in the Shower Before Warming Up in the Bathtub
Before you get in the bathtub, thoroughly clean yourself in the shower. The bathtub is a place to warm up, so swimming or washing yourself in the tub is considered very bad manners.
Rinse Off Chairs And Buckets after Use
After using the provided chairs and buckets, give them a quick rinse and put them back in their original spots.
Many Sentos Prohibit Bringing In Alcohol
Everyone in the bathtub will be nude. In most cases, breakable glass bottles are not allowed in the bathtub for safety reasons.
Manners In The Bathtub
No Washing Clothes
You cannot wash clothes in the bathtub. It is also bad manners to let your towel touch the water in the bathtub. This is because any leftover soap or detergent will get into the water.
After Your Bath
Towel Off And Head Back To The Dressing Room
Before you go back into the dressing room, towel off with the larger towel so that you don’t track water around.
Check To Make Sure You Have All Your Belongings
Be careful not to leave anything behind in your locker.
Bathtubs In Japanese Homes
The majority of Japanese homes and larger apartments have separate rooms for the toilet and bathtub, and only the room with the bathtub is called the bathroom.
Bathrooms will have a space to shower as well, separate from the bathtub. The first thing people do when getting in the bath is take a shower: wash your hair and body, and take care of anything else you need to in the shower side. According to Japanese tradition, you aren’t supposed to wash your body in the bathtub.
Why Do Japanese People Like Soaking in Bathtubs?
Japan is extremely hot in the summer. To deal with this, Japanese homes have traditionally been built to allow for good ventilation. For this same reason, homes can get very cold in the winter, which is why people came to like warming up in the bath.
There is also perhaps a strong cultural aspect of bathing culture in Japan. Misogi, or the practice of purification, is custom at shrines and temples in Japan and applies to the body and soul. Traditionally, misogi is associated with sitting under waterfalls and spiritual practices. This concept, however, could be part of the reason why bathing regularly in Japan is so common. The bathtub also provides a place to cleanse and relax more than just physical impurities.
Soaking in the tub is a year-round practice. Warming up the body improves circulation, alleviates fatigue, and helps with shoulder stiffness. Raising the body’s temperature also improves metabolism, which can have dietary and skin-beautifying effects.
Ettiquete for Bathing in Japan
You might think that there are too many manners associated with public bathing, but the bathtub is a place to relax in Japan. All of these rules are about being considerate to the other customers around you, so keep that in mind, and enjoy your long hot soak in a spacious bathtub.