West Meets East: An American in Japan | All Blogs


Japanese Baths and Hot Springs

By Josiah Lebowitz

A private onsen pool at a mountain resort

Bathing is a very important part of Japanese life. In fact, many Japanese people will take a bath every day (usually in the evening). Though showers have also become popular, especially for people in small apartments where there isn’t room for a nice bathtub, for the Japanese nothing beats a good bath. While personal bathtubs and bath houses are both good, the ultimate bathing experience is in an onsen (hot springs). But bathing is a bit more complicated than just hopping in the tub or slipping on your swimsuit and heading for a hot springs pool. There’s a whole process you need to follow. But more on that in a moment…

Japanese Bathtubs
Since bathing is so important to the Japanese, bathtubs tend to be bigger and deeper than those in the US. Especially since you want to be able to submerge your entire body up to your head. And, as it’s common for parents to bathe with their young children, many bathtubs will be large enough to fit two or three people. It’s traditional for Japanese people to bathe every evening, often shortly before they go to bed, and it’s a good wife’s job to have a hot bath prepared for her husband every night when he returns home from work. Bathing is seen not just as a way to get clean but as a way to relax as well, so a bath is considered an important part of unwinding after a long day.

As a note, in Japanese houses and apartments bathtubs and/or showers are often placed in their own room, completely separate from the toilet and sink (though sometimes there will be sinks in both rooms).

Bath Houses

The men's baths in an older bath house.

These days, most Japanese people have a bathtub or at least a shower in their house or apartment. But that wasn’t also always the case and even now many older buildings and smaller apartments will lack bathtubs. So what do Japanese people without bathtubs do when they want a bath? They go to a public bath house.

Bath houses are buildings containing large communal baths (separated by gender). For a few hundred yen (several dollars) you can go in, get clean, and relax in the baths to your heart’s content. Many bath houses stay open all night and most of the day as well, so you really can take it easy and stay as long as you like. While you’re welcome to bring your own towels (ideally, you should have a big one and a small one), soap, and shampoo, if you forgot or don’t have any the bathhouses will provide some (often for a small fee). To help entice customers now that more and more people have their own bathtubs, many modern bath houses include fancy jet baths, multiple bath types featuring different water temperatures and/or special mineral mixtures, saunas, outdoor pools, and the like.

As an interesting aside, the traditional Japanese after bath drink (at least for the last 60 years or so), is flavored milk. You’ll often have your choice of flavors such as strawberry, lemon, and coffee. Though if flavored milk isn’t your thing, most bath houses have vending machines as well so you can always grab some coffee, tea, or soda.

Onsen

My mom and a friend try out the foot baths at a Tokyo onsen park

While bath houses are all well and good, onsen (hot springs) are the place to bath and I’ve yet to meet a Japanese person who doesn’t consider spending a weekend at an onsen resort in the mountains to be an excellent vacation. But you don’t have to go to the mountains. There are onsen all over Japan. Even Tokyo has a couple. Though the image of the “ideal” onsen is a large rustic outdoor bath in a tranquil mountain setting.

Aside from the fact that they use real hot springs water as opposed to ordinary water, onsen are similar to bath houses, though usually a lot more picturesque. Men and women have separate baths and you follow the same bathing ritual and etiquette (more on that in a moment). However, many onsen feature entire resorts or hotels built around them. It’s common for towns with lots of onsen to become popular vacation destinations featuring a number of public onsen baths and hotels with private baths of their own. Guests tend to come for two or three days to relax and may bath two or three times a day, either using their hotel’s onsen or traveling around the area and sampling the different ones that are available.

Japanese Bathing Etiquette
While foreigners are given a lot of leeway when it comes to Japanese manners and etiquette, there are a few rules that it’s absolutely critical that you don’t break, and the rules surrounding bathing are among them. Of course, if you’re taking a private bath in your hotel room you can do what you want. But if you go to a bath house or onsen it’s important to follow proper bathing etiquette to avoid trouble. Here’s the basic process.

1. If you’re just entering the building, there will likely be a place to take off your shoes and deposit them in a shoe locker. Do so.

2. If you didn’t bring towels, soap, and shampoo, go ahead and buy or rent a set (if you aren’t given the option to do so, then they’re most likely provided for free in the locker room and/or bath area).

3. Go to the appropriate locker room and find your locker. Depending on where you are, there may be a shelf to place your big towel on. If not, it goes in the locker. Occasionally, instead of lockers, there will be shelves, baskets, or something similar but you get the idea.

4. Strip down and leave everything in your locker. The only things that come with you from here are your soap, shampoo, and small towel. And I do mean the ONLY things because from here on out you’ll be completely naked. No clothing, no big towel wrapped around you, no nothing. In Japan, bathing is done entirely in the buff. This is, of course, why there are separate baths for men and women. Little kids, however, stay with their parents regardless of gender.

As a note, while they’re becoming increasingly rare, you can find some mixed gender baths if you look hard enough (usually in some far out the way part of the mountains). A few allow bathers to wear towels into the water but most don’t. As a rule, women (especially young women) tend to avoid these baths.

The washing area at a small onsen

5. Moving on, you’ll find yourself in an area with a lot of low faucets and/or showerheads. Grab a bucket and a stool (usually either by the door or the faucets themselves) and sit down in front of one of them. It’s time to get clean. That’s right, in Japan you get clean before even entering the bath. If there isn’t a showerhead, you can use the faucet to fill your bucket with water and pour it over yourself. Anyway, the goal here is to wash your entire body (with soap) and wash your hair. You can use your little towel to scrub yourself and/or dry off as needed. Make sure to rinse yourself off when you’re done, as you don’t want to get any soap suds in the bath itself.

6. Once you’re done, stick your soap and shampoo in your bucket and either leave it at the faucet or, if the place it crowded, stick it somewhere out of the way. Now it’s finally time for the bath. Depending on the bath house or onsen you’re at, there may be several pools or only one and said pools may be outdoors, indoors, or some combination of the two. Feel free to move between pools whenever you want, just keep the following in mind. First off, since the water is shared it’s important to keep it clean. On that note, you’re supposed to keep your hair out of the water. Keep your little towel out of the water as well (either set it aside or fold it and set it on your head like many Japanese people do). Second, these are baths, not swimming pools, so you shouldn’t swim, splash around, or anything like that. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the water.

7. If you need a break from the heat, there’s often a cold pool somewhere and benches you can sit on to cool off. When you’re ready to leave entirely, go collect your soap and shampoo then rinse off if you want to (at some onsen, people don’t rinse off before they leave since they want to make sure they get the maximum benefit from the mineral rich water). Finally, get your big towel, dry off, get dressed, return your towels if you rented them, and you’re ready to go.

As one final note, people with tattoos aren’t allowed in many Japanese baths and onsen (though they can usually rent private baths if there are some available). Tattoos in Japan have a strong association with the yakuza (Japanese mafia) so they tend to make everyone else a bit uncomfortable.

So, what do you think? While bathing with a bunch of naked men or women can take a bit of getting used to (and isn’t for the extremely shy), Japanese baths and especially onsen are very relaxing and a great way to immerse yourself in the Japanese culture. Even if you can’t make it into the mountains, you should at least give one of Tokyo’s onsen (which I’ll talk about more in a future post) a try.

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