It was definitely a nerve-wracking experience when I walked into my first public bathing experience in Japan. Not only were my bits on show for anyone to see (not that anyone looked, fyi), but there was a fear of overstepping an invisible line of Japanese bathing etiquette that isn’t always obvious, especially for first time users. So, in an effort to relieve any first-time jitters, here are my top 15 tips to help you transition, from bathing newbie to seasoned bath pro, into this wonderful Japanese tradition of bathing, cleansing and relaxation.
Onsen (温泉) Hot Springs and Sento (銭湯)
Whether you’re in the city or in rural Japan, you’ll come across two basic bathing options: An onsen (温泉) and sento (銭湯). Onsen (hot springs) are underground pockets of water that have been heated by magma that makes its way to the surface of the earth. A sento is a public bathhouse that doesn’t utilize natural spring water, and more commonly tends to the daily bathing needs of a local community. Both have a varied range of quality and style, from simple baths with basic shower and bath options, to high-end luxury spas with varying bath temperatures, steam and dry saunas, cold tubs, and even waterfalls.
Personally, I love both. No matter where I happen to be in Japan, I always look out for this icon– ♨ or ゆ, meaning “hot water”. Private or ‘family’ baths (家族風呂) are occasionally available at some facilities, and can be available upon reservation.
When You First Arrive at Your Onsen or Bathhouse
Buy Your Admission Ticket
Admission to your onsen or sento can vary from 300 yen and upwards to 2,500 yen. Tickets can either be purchased at the reception desk, or vending machines near the entrance. Tickets, as well as towels, toiletries, and even beer can be purchased here. If there is a vending machine option, take your ticket to the reception to prove your admission. Often, you’ll trade your ticket for a key to a changing room locker. If you happen to have a key for your shoe locker from the entrance, you may have to submit that key as well.
Men and Women (and Mixed Bathing)
Learn the two kanji characters for women (女) and men (男) to avoid any embarrassing surprises later on. Half-length curtains often bear these symbols that hang in front of changing room doors. Mixed gender baths also exist in Japan, though they’re not as common.
Though attitudes are slowly changing, many places still prohibit people with tattoos from entering into facilities. For centuries, tattoos were synonymous with gang activity and crime, and that perception still holds true in many pockets of Japan. There’s usually a sign to state whether tattoos are permitted or not. You can also ask, “Tatuu wa daijobu desu ka?” (“Are tattoos OK?”) for good measure. If the facilities happen to have a private or “family” bath option, they’re are good choice if tattoos aren’t allowed in their public baths. Learn more about tattoos in Japanese bathhouses here.
100 Yen Coins
Keep a couple of 100 yen coins handy. Shoe lockers occasionally require them, and changing lockers may also ask for a 100 yen toll. Usually, you can recover those coins as soon as you return your key.
In the Changing Room
No Clothes or Swimsuits
It’s your birthday!… suit. This isn’t the time to be modest, so strip off all your layers and get in there! It’s impolite to stare in Japanese baths, so people won’t be looking at you anyways. Bring the small towel you’ll need in the bath with you, that you’ve either received at reception or brought personally with you, and use it if you’re feeling shy.
This might be a no brainer, but no cameras, smart phones, or video cameras in the change rooms. If you must text, put your phone deep into your locker for the sake of privacy for those around you.
I once embarrassingly tried to pull open a door to the change room after my bath, not realizing it was a sliding door. You’d think it would look pretty obvious what kind of door it was, but while you’re standing in the buff desperately trying to blend in, sometimes it isn’t the case.
Washing and Bathing Etiquette
Wash from Head to Toe
This is a place to cleanse your body, so make sure to completely wash down before entering the bath. Many onsens and sentos provide shampoo, conditioner and body soap for free, though you’re welcome to bring your own. After you’re done, rinse down your station so it’s ready for its next user. In some old style onsens, there aren’t any washing stations. In that case, rinse yourself off as best as you can with the available taps on site.
Grooming and Laundry
No shaving, hair dying, or doing laundry at the baths. For men, shaving stations are available inside the change rooms, so there’s no excuse to do it at the bath. When I first started my public bathing experience, I assumed that it would be more common to see women shaving. But out of the several dozen times I’ve visited a bathhouse, I’ve only ever seen one person do it. It may be wise to watch and do as the locals do if you’re not sure. If you must, be sure to rinse your station down thoroughly when you’re done.
The Japanese have centuries of bathing history under their belt, and so being naked around others is a pretty natural thing to do. If you keep your eyes to yourself, you’ll be sure to have the favour returned.
Careful Not to Splash
As tempting as it may seem at first, there is absolutely no jumping, splashing, or swimming allowed into the baths. You’ll also notice that washing stations are close together, so people are very careful about not spraying each other as they rinse off.
Keep Your Hair and Towel Out of the Water
If you’ve got long hair, tie it up with a hair band. Or do what I do, and wrap it up with that small towel you’ve brought in with you. Who wants to soak in a bath full of water and hair (gross). The same goes for your towel. If you’re not sure what to do with it, fold it neatly on the top of your head and let it cool down (effectively keeping your head nice and cool).
Use Your Indoor Voice
This is a place of leisure, relaxation, and quiet contemplation. You’re REALLY excited to be in Japan. I totally get it. Let’s use our indoor voices to talk about how excited we are.
After Your Soak
Wipe Off Excess Water Before Re-entering the Change Room
You’ve finished your soak and now you want out. Once again, that small towel comes into good use. Use it to wipe down your body of excess water before entering the changing room. It keeps the floors free of slippage and people don’t have to step into icky, cold puddles while they’re changing.
Replenish Those Electrolytics
Lastly, but not least, let’s replenish! Of course, it’s not mandatory, but then you’d be missing out on one of Japan’s long-time customs of having a refreshing, cool drink after a good soak. I personally love the yogurt drink that comes in a thick, glass bottle. Or, how about the (in)famously-named-but-refreshing-tasty electrolyte drink, Pocari Sweat. Anyone?
A Quick Review
So you’re now armed with some (hopefully) handy tips to ease your transition from bathing newbie to seasoned onsen/sento pro. Here’s a quick review of some common terms:
Hot Water: ♨ or ゆ
Elementary School Student: 小学生
Child: 子供 or こども
Private or family-style baths: 家族風呂
“Are tattoos OK?”: “Tatuu wa daijobu desu ka?“
And there you have it! I hope this guide helps anyone who is traversing this somewhat flustering Japanese bathing culture for the first time. But I can assure you, it’s worth stepping into it. Perhaps, you’ll end up falling in love with it, just as I did.
Happy bathing everyone!
Do you have any funny stories of your bathing experiences, solid tips for first time bathers, or any feedback? Comment below!