For most people, taking a bath is done for the sole purpose of keeping the body clean. In Japan, body hygiene is not the only reason why people climb into the bathtub every evening. Taking some “me-time”, letting go of any thoughts and worries of the day, and literally rinsing them off your body are all part of the Japanese bathing experience. You might be thinking to yourself, “But I do the same, when I’m taking a bath, so what makes the Japanese experience so different?”. The answer is simple: In Japan, it is common to take a bath in public bathhouses (Onsen / Sento), together with many other people.
You might be thinking that taking a bath with a bunch of naked strangers is quite the opposite of relaxing. If you want to know why this is not true, continue reading! Communal bathing in Japan follows a special code of behavior that ensures a hygienic and pleasant bathing experience for everyone. Following, I will dive deeper into the Japanese bathing culture and its many facets. Together, we are going to take a closer look at the difference between an ‘onsen’ and a ‘sento’, what to bring for a visit to a bathhouse, and how to avoid making a fool of yourself as a foreigner.
The history of Japanese bathhouses
The origin of Japanese bathhouses is tightly connected to religion and dates back to the 13th century. Right when the city Nara and the great Buddha statue were built, along with Nara’s temples, the first bathhouses were installed. Water was viewed as a sign of purity in Buddhist as well as in Shinto beliefs, so taking a bath was considered as washing off all kinds of impurities, both literally and figuratively. In the following centuries, many bathhouses were built all over Japan. Public bathing became very popular among all social classes since social hierarchies did not really play a role, when it came to bathing.
Sento – Traditional bathhouses
Before Japan became an industrial nation after WWII, it was common for most people to visit one of many bathhouses (sento) at night. In exchange for a little fee, people could take a bath there. Baths for women and men are separated and the areas are designated by the color of the curtain (traditionally blue for men and red for women) and the corresponding Kanji (男 for men and 女 for women).
Interesting facts about onsen
A Japanese onsen is a bathhouse that consists of geothermally heated hot springs. These hot springs are rich in natural minerals and are said to be good for skin treatment as well as overall wellbeing.
The fee for communal bathing in one of Japan’s hot springs is 300-400 Yen on average. Therefore, for just 4 U.S. dollars you can take a bath and relax a few hours. However, if you plan to privately rent a whole bathing room for yourself or your friends/family, you can expect to pay much more.
The biggest difference between onsen and sento is the water that is used. In a sento, heated tap water is used. In onsen, geothermally heated water is taken from underground reservoirs. This water is cooled down manually to approx. 36-42 °C. It is common that the interior design of onsen is much more luxurious-looking and aesthetic than in a regular sento.
According to the town or region, hot spring water contains different natural minerals. It is not uncommon that onsen are used as therapy for certain skin conditions, like neurodermitis. The water is also proven to relieve muscle pain or rheumatisms.
It is very common for ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) to come with a hot spring that can be used by the guests at any time. Some ryokan even offer daily passes for external visitors.
Useful onsen equipment
- A couple of 50- or 100-Yen coins. Many bathhouses have a locker for shoes or valuables and you can also use coins for getting a refreshing drink from one of the vending machines after your bath.
- Most onsen offer shampoo and body wash for free. However, if you want to use your own items, bring them with you.
- One big towel to dry your body.
- One small towel or washcloth to clean yourself before bathing.
- Hairpins or hair ties for your hair (if you have long hair).
- Body lotion. After taking a bath it is possible that the skin is slightly dehydrated – some soothing body lotion can quickly fix this.
- Makeup, hair treatment and hairbrush. If you would like to apply makeup after bathing, you should bring along your cosmetics. Please remember to remove any makeup before bathing. Also, don’t forget to bring a hairbrush and hair treatment (hair gel, spray etc.). Dryers are usually available.
The basic bathing rules in onsen & sento
Public bathing in Japan is more like an XXL bathtub than a pool. Onsen and sento both have a changing room where guests undress completely. You can only bathe, if you are fully naked. You’re not taking baths in your own bathtub wearing a swimming suit either, are you? This might be a little awkward at first, but at least 99.9% of all public bathhouses are gender segregated.
Don’t forget to shower before bathing!
Before you can finally immerse yourself in the relaxing hot springs, you are expected to thoroughly rinse off your body in one of the designated shower areas – and don’t forget to apply shampoo and bodywash! Afterwards, you will have to wash off every last bit of soap that remains on your body. It is also important to clean the space you were using for the next person taking a shower. If you have long hair, you are supposed to pin it up, so that nobody will have the unpleasant experience of finding hair in the water, they are taking a bath in.
Don’t dip your towel in the water
A lot of people use a small towel as a washcloth while showering. It is common to put this towel on top of your head while bathing. It is also possible to place the towel at a designated drop-off box close to the entrance after using it. However, never let your towel touch the onsen water because it is considered dirty.
Don’t swim! Relax.
Throughout the whole visit, you are expected to practice respectful behavior towards other visitors. In order to make everyone have a pleasant and relaxed experience, splashing should be avoided by all means (children included). Other than that, you should not have loud conversations, so always keep in mind to lower your voice when talking with someone. The “bathtub” is big enough to swim in, but this is seen as rude. Also the water is too shallow anyway in most onsen.
Are tattoos allowed in onsen or sento?
If you see a sign that prohibits people with tattoos to enter the Japanese bathhouse, please respect that. Nowadays, there are some bathhouses that are okay with their visitors having tattoos. In these onsen it is possible that you come across some Yakuza members though…They are usually not looking to start a fight with a tourist, so as long as you mind your business, everything should be fine. Another option for all the tattoo lovers out there is to make a reservation for a private onsen. Because these onsen are oftentimes fully booked, you should anticipate making the reservation ahead of time.
Different types of onsen
Some bathhouses have outside bathing areas, the so-called ‘roten-buro’, which translates to “open air bath”. Visitors can enjoy their bathing experience close to nature in single “bathtubs” or in a whole onsen “town”. Sometimes, these open-air baths come with a breathtaking view of the ocean, mountains, a river, lake, or forest. There is nothing that could possibly make you feel closer to nature than taking a bath in your birthday suit under open air.
The kazoku-buro is a family bath, as the name suggests. As a family, you can book a whole bath (with space for 2-3 people) in a lot of onsen facilities. This alternative is often used by families with toddlers and young children, who are not old enough to conform to the strict rules of bathhouses. It is also a great alternative to spend some private time with your family.
A kashikiri-buro is basically the same as a kazoku-buro. Some facilities might use this term, while other facilities might use the ladder. Literally, kashikiri-buro translates to “reserved bath”, which makes it a more neutral term than kazoku-buro – not only families can book this bath, but also couples or friends. In practice, this is also true for kazoku-buros, so kashikiri-buro might be the more “correct” term.
You can find higaeri-onsen in ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). Usually, the onsen in ryokan are only accessible to internal guests, but there are special days where external visitors can buy a ticket for entering the Onsen. These tickets are marked with the word “higaeri” (hi= day; kaeri= returning home).
Denki-buro can be translated as “electric bath”, so you might already guess what it is about: Weak electric currents are conducted through the mineral-rich onsen-water. These weak currents are supposed to make your muscles relax. It is basically the same as a functional electrical simulation (FES) that is often used for medical treatment. Some people love denki-buros, while others prefer to stay away from them. But if you have a pacemaker, you should avoid these baths for sure.
10 popular onsen-destinations
If you are planning to visit a Japanese hot spring on your next Japan-trip, be sure to check out the following list of popular destinations:
- Atami Onsen in Shizuoka
- Gero Onsen in Gifu
- Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma
- Hakone Onsen in Kanagawa
- Arima Onsen in Kobe
- Dogo Onsen in Ehime
- Beppu Onsen in Oita
- Yufuin Onsen in Oita
- Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto
- Ibusuki Onsen in Kagoshima
All of these destinations are worth paying a visit, so you can go to whatever locations fit the best to your travel route. If you planned a trip to the southern tip of Kyushu, Kagoshima, you can find additional onsen-recommendations here.
Published: 13.10.2020 | Posted by Lara