Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighborhood sentō bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water (湯 or ゆ yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with an honorific prefix (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Whereas a Western "bath" is used for washing in, "baths" in Japan are for soaking and relaxing. (Think of it more like a hot tub than a bath.) Washing is done first outside the tub, usually sitting on a stool in front of a faucet, but showers are also available.
The difference that may stick in your craw is that unlike a hot tub, baths in Japan are generally used naked. While this initially sounds shocking to Western sensibilities, it's simply the norm in Japan; friends, colleagues, and family members of any age think nothing of it. The Japanese even use the phrase "naked socializing" (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) to describe the way bathing together breaks down social barriers. You should really consider trying it, but if you refuse then there are other options:
- Foot baths (足湯 ashiyu) are a popular way to relax; the only thing that goes in these baths is your bare feet, while you sit comfortable and clothed on the pool wall.
- Mixed-gender (混浴 kon'yoku) baths sometimes allow (but may not require) bathing suits, and sometimes they're only allowed for women. Commercial operations (that is, public baths not part of a ryokan) with kon'yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
- Some ryokan have "family baths" that you can reserve for just you and your group; these are meant for mom, dad, and the kids to bathe together. Some of these allow bathing suits, or you can use it to guarantee you'll have the bath to yourself. Similarly, some ryokan offer high-end rooms with a private bath; bathing suits might still not be allowed, but even if not it at least means you won't be sharing the bath with strangers, or you can take turns with your mates bathing solo.
Many onsen and sento 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 tattooed visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave. Websites such as Tattoo-Friendly maintain lists of facilities that allow or overlook tattoos.
Onsen (温泉), 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 (露天風呂): 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 (家族風呂 kazoku-buro), racier "romance baths" (ロマンス風呂 romansu-buro) or just plain old reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-buro). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (外湯 sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (内湯 uchiyu).
Don't focus exclusively on inns; many onsen have no lodging, and are just there to bathe and relax in. While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), 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 (混浴 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.
To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japan Association of Secluded Hot Spring Inns (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō o mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country. Many other sites curate lists of onsen, such as Secret Onsen which focuses on outdoor and mixed-gender baths.
Sentō and spas
Sentō (銭湯) 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 super sento (スーパー銭湯 sūpā sentō) or spas (スパ supa), which in Japan does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see Japan § Sleep) 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.
Onsen vs. ryokan: what's the difference?
Although they often go together, onsen and ryokan are not synonymous:
It's usually not too difficult to be sure the ryokan you're booking is an actual onsen. Search engines such as Japanese Guest Houses clearly indicate whether baths are hot springs or regular water. If you still aren't sure, hot springs by law must publish an analysis of their hot spring water (temperature, dissolved minerals, etc.), although it may only be in Japanese and may be difficult to find. Key phrases to look for:
Foreign visitors typically visit hot springs by stopping at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, most of which feature hot springs as one of their main attractions (the other main attraction usually being the elaborate kaiseki meals). Visiting hot springs during the day is possible as well. Ryokan also typically sell day passes for access to their private baths, while many hot springs are independent baths that are open to the public. Many of these have grown into hot spring towns, resort areas with lots of lodging, stores to peruse during the day, and other activities for kids and family.
Beppu is famous for its hot spring hells, a series of hot springs in a variety of colors from thick gloopy grey (from suspended mud) to blue-green (from dissolved cobalt) to blood red (from dissolved iron and magnesium). The hells are not suitable for bathing in (they're just too hot, although next to one there's a foot bath with some pale red and still very hot water) but plenty others at Beppu Onsen are. Hakone may not be the best hot springs in Japan, but it's about an hour outside of Tokyo and on the way to Kyoto and Osaka, so it's a popular destination. Shibu Onsen in Yamanouchi near Nagano is famous for wild monkeys who come from the snow-covered mountains to sit in the hot springs. (Don't worry, there are separate baths for people.)
After the "Three Views" of Japan were composed in the 17th century, many authors have come up with their own lists of Japanese sites and attractions. Here is a selection of top 3 hot springs:
Three Great Hot Springs
Three Famous Springs
三名泉 Sanmeisen. This list was authored by Hayashi Razan, father of Hayashi Gahō who created the aforementioned "Three Views".
Three Old Springs
Three Baths of Fusō
扶桑三名湯 Fusō-sanmeiyu. Fusō is a poetic name for Japan and this one is credited to traveling haiku poet Matsuo Basho.
Japanese are understanding of 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 fellow 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 男 ("men") and 女 ("women") to pick the correct entrance. Men's baths also typically have blue curtains, while women's are red. (See also § Gender issues below.) 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" (大人 otona) and "child" (子供 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 flimsy washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It's not particularly good for covering your privates (it's too small to wrap around most waists, and too short to cover much anyway) and it's not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are usually available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room except when drying off, using only their washcloth for privacy, but women can use their large towel to wrap up with outside of the bathroom. 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.
The shocking truth
Some public baths in Japan have electric baths (電気風呂 denki-buro). It's exactly what it sounds like: metal pads on the wall of the tub run a small electric current through it, giving you a pins and needles sensation (called piri-piri in Japanese). They're popular with elderly people to help relax stiff and achy muscles. The electric baths are safe for most people, but obviously should be avoided by anyone with a pacemaker, heart condition, or certain other medical conditions.
Before getting into the bath tub, you can douse yourself with water from the bath to acclimate to the temperature. Particularly at hot springs, there may be a small fountain of hot spring water for this purpose (かけ湯 kake-yu). You can also do this to give yourself a token cleansing when moving between bath areas or after taking a break from soaking.
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 dirty (even if you didn't use it, it would leave lint in the bath); you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside. You needn't stay in until you turn lobster red; feel free to take breaks to cool off to extend your soaking time. 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.)
The bath is for soaking and light conversation; don't roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. (Kids get a little leeway, but keep them from running since the floors can be very slippery and uneven.) 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 konbanwa depending 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 (休憩室 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.
In Japanese homes, there are separate rooms for the sink, bath, and toilet, so that all three can be used simultaneously. The "bath" room contains a tub for soaking, and a combination faucet/shower for washing, all fully enclosed in a wet room with a drain on the floor. The tub is often fully automatic, with a complex control panel that fills the tub and sets the temperature; many homes have a duplicate panel in the kitchen so you can prepare the bath remotely.
Once the tub is filled, it's reused by every other person taking a bath that night, hence the importance of cleaning yourself thoroughly before entering. In between bathers, the tub is covered to keep it warm and keep dirty wash water from splashing in. Traditionally, baths are taken in a strict order: visitors before family, men before women, and oldest before youngest. While you could choose to negotiate with other guests who should bathe first, you should probably not refuse the honor of bathing before your host family if offered it.
- See also: Toilets
The Sound Princess
In women's public toilets, there's often a box that makes an electronic flushing sound when you press the button. What's it for?
Well, many Japanese women don't like the idea of being overheard while in the bathroom. To cover their own noises, women used to flush the toilet repeatedly, wasting a lot of water. To prevent that, the electronic noise maker was created.
The most common brand is called Otohime. Otohime is a goddess from Japanese mythology, but here the name is a pun, written with kanji to mean "Sound Princess".
Some features of Japan's toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you're unfamiliar with these, it's simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.)
In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.
Most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world's leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan's homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.
Don't panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. (In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn't do the trick, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled 止 with the standard "stop button" symbol ⏹ on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following:
- Oshiri (おしり) - "buttocks", for spraying your rear - typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid - by the second or third attempt it will seem normal
- Bidet (ビデ) - for spraying your front - typically shown in pink with a female icon
- Kansō (乾燥) - "dry", for drying off when finished - typically yellow with a wavy air icon
Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.
Young children can accompany an opposite-gender parent. Older children must use the correct side, even if this means they are unaccompanied; a rough age would be elementary school, or around 5 years old. (Children who wear diapers are usually not allowed in onsen or sento baths.)
For transgender, intersex, and other nonconforming people, the situation can be difficult. The distinction between the "men's" and "women's" baths is based entirely on external appearance; post-op transgender people may have no problems, but others may not be so lucky. If you wish to partake in a Japanese bath without being coerced into using the men's or women's side, there are several solutions:
- Use a private bath (either a reservable shared bath, or a private bath in your room)
- Find a mixed-gender (混浴 kon'yoku) bath
- Find a bath that is not so popular and go early on a weekday when it's hopefully empty