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Japanese Bath Culture

If you are looking for an authentic Japanese cultural experience, head to the bath. Onsens and sentos make the most of Japan's geological gifts and hot springs have a long association with cleansing rituals that have evolved into the bathing practices of today. Bathing at home is similar to bathing at a hot spring. Add bath salts to your water to recreate the onsen experience.

BY Lori Ono

Japanese Bath Culture

After a hot and sweaty day of watching the Olympic and Paralympic athletes do their best, it’s time for some rest and relaxation. Even in a hot Tokyo summer, a nice hot bath relaxes your body and your mind. Designed for calming the mind and restoring the body, a bath in an onsen or a sento is not to be missed. Bathing in Japan is often a communal experience. Men’s and women’s baths are usually separate. Co-ed baths called konyoku are rare. Bathers are naked except in facilities designed for amusement more than relaxation.

The amount of geological activity in Japan gives the country many hot springs. Water from a hot spring has long been used for purification in Shinto ceremonies. Bathing is a way to purify the body, but it’s also very relaxing! Taking a bath in Japan echoes that tradition.

Onsen: enjoying nature’s mineral water

Bath

Onsens are baths that use natural hot springs for their water. Often resorts are built in a cluster around a hot spring. Different locations have different mineral composition and this plays a part in the bathing experience. Many people believe various types of mineral waters have a therapeutic effect on the body. Hot springs without a particularly unique trait have a universal appeal. A hot spring with higher sulfur content has a slightly rotten-egg smell, but it well regarded for the water’s velvety feel. This water is said to be good for the skin. If the water has a higher carbonation, the bubbles will form on the skin. This water is said to be good for blood flow. Onsen aficionados often travel to different parts of the country to try bathing different types of water. Regardless of the type of water, the effect of the warm bath and calm atmosphere itself is relaxing.

If you are looking for an authentic onsen experience and want to see more of Japan there are three famous onsen spots within a few hours of Tokyo. Atami is on the coast of Sagami Bay’s Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture. Depending on the train, Atami is 1-2 hours away. Nikko Kinugawa is in Tochigi Prefecture about 2 hours north of Tokyo. Nikko is famous for the resting place of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. http://nikko-travel.jp/english/access/ Nestled in the mountains west of Tokyo, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture is 90 minutes away by train. In the Edo period, Hakone was a famous stop on the Old Tokaido Road that connected Kyoto to Tokyo.

Hakone and Hot Springs

Hakone

Two round baths at Hakone

Sento: A local bathhouse

Japanese Bath

A sento is a neighborhood bathhouse. It’s similar to an onsen but a sento is not required to use mineral water. Sentos were a common neighborhood feature. They became a place to relax and socialize with neighbors. Most housing in Japan now includes a bathtub so sentos are becoming less common.

Super sento

While the neighborhood sento might be disappearing, the large super sento is doing well. A super sento might have the capacity for hundreds of people. They often have some amusements like a game center or a restaurant. There are four super sentos in Tokyo: Ooedo Onsen (nearest station: Linkai Line Tokyo Teleport Station), La Qua (nearest station: JR and Toei Mita line Suidobashi and Toei Mita and Oedo line Kasuga), and Toshima En’s Niwa no Yu (Nearest station: Seibu Ikebukuro Line Toshimaen) .

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

Oedo Onsen Monogatari

The Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba is convenient for travellers watching Olympic events in the Tokyo Bay Zone. You can rent a yukata and stroll around a recreation of old Tokyo when it was called Edo.

Kowakien Yunessun is a super sento located in Hakone with many novelty baths. Bathing suits are required for the large, co-ed area. This allows the whole family or group to enjoy their time together.

Ashiyu — small foot baths

Japanese Foot Bath

Take off your shoes and soothe sore feet.

Ashiyu are small springs where weary travellers can warm their feet and take a rest. Many onsen and sento include footbaths but you might find one on a hiking trail or outside a hot spring. Most public ashiyu are free. At Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, you can wear a yukata and sit with your feet in the water as you relax or chat with friends.

Onsen and Sento Features

Onsen and sento share many of the same features. Not every location will boast the same features.

Japanese Bath

Some outdoor baths have walls and no roof or a roof but no walls. Women’s rotemburo usually have walls for privacy.

  • Rotemburo is an outdoor bath. Some outdoor baths have a spectacular view overlooking mountains, the ocean, lake or river. Some seem to be in a small glade. The contrast between the water and the cooler outdoor air
  • Small waterfalls may provide a shoulder massage, but be careful, sometimes the waterfall’s purpose is to cool the water.
  • Electric bath sends a mild current circulates through the water to stimulate muscles and promote relaxation
  • Cooling pools provide relief when the bath is too hot but you want to go back to the tub.
  • Saunas provide another way to relax. Be sure to wash off any sweat from your sauno before re-entering the bath.
  • Kashikiri is a system where people can rent a smaller bath for themselves for a short period of time. It is more common at a ryokan. It allows coed bathing. Some kashikiri are more luxurious than the larger communal bath.
Waterfall Bath

The waterfall transports water between baths, cools the water or may give a shoulder massage.

Etiquette

Japanese Bath

Rules for using an onsen or sento are aimed at creating a calm atmosphere and a good experience for everyone.

  • Keep valuables in lockers provided.
  • Remove jewellery. This is partly courtesy but mineral water may tarnish jewellery.
  • Wash yourself before entering the bath. Washing away sweat and dirt is a link back to purification rituals. On a practical note, this keeps the water nice for everyone.
  • Sit on the stool provided while washing.
  • Do not splash or spray neighbors.
  • Rinse any soap off the stool and floor.
  • Chat but be mindful of other people’s relaxation. Disruptive people may be asked to leave.
  • No swimming
  • No drinking
  • No towels in the bath. Some people keep their wash towel folded neatly on their head to keep it nearby but out of the water

Guide to Bathing in Japan

Planning

If you’re planning to visit an onsen or a sento, please check about their rules and their barrier free accessibility ahead of time to avoid disappointment. Some places do not allow children under junior high school age. There are strict guidelines for guests allowed to enter the bath for personal and public health. Each facility will have their own guidelines for people requiring movement assistance. Be sure to check the hours of operation and any changes due to holidays or maintenance.

Onsens, Sentos and Tattoos

Tattoos are not widely considered a fashion statement in Japan. They have a long association with anti-social forces and criminal organizations. Younger people may be more comfortable than older people about bathing with someone who has tattoos. While this issue is slowly changing, there is no widespread rule.

Most onsens have a strict no tattoo policy. Some may not care unless another customer complains or they allow bathers to put a sticker over their tattoos. Other places allow kashikiri which is renting a smaller bath for personal use for a short period of time. It is important to check the onsen or sento’s policies before you go.

Amenities and What to Bring

Unless you want to use your own products, it’s possible to show up at an onsen or sento without any personal supplies. Onsens usually include towels and amenities in their fee. They often provide a cotton robe called yukata for lounging at the facility. Many sento provide the same items for a fee.

Bathing at Home

Japanese Bath

Japanese baths are unit baths and don’t need a shower curtain.

At home, Japanese practice the same habit of washing the body before taking a bath. Many homes also use a stool and bucket just like an onsen or sento. You can even mimic the water of a hot spring by adding salts or liquids to your bath. Bath salts are a popular souvenir. You can find them any place that sells soaps, and other bathing goods.

Soap

Hot Springs (Onsen)

CONCLUSION

Bathing in Japan is cleans the body and washes away the stress of the day. At an onsen, you can enjoy the natural gifts of mineral water and enjoy time with friends and family while relaxing. The sento is a more casual way to wash the day’s stress away. Both experiences provide memorable, authentic experiences of Japanese culture. Take home some of the many items in Japan to recreate the Japanese bathing experience at home.

Lori Ono
Canadian Over 20 years living in various parts of Japan.

I’m a Canadian writer and photographer based in Tokyo. I love helping people enjoy their time in Japan.

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