How to Bathe in Japanese Public Bathes and Onsen

‘Do you prefer taking a shower or a bath?’
If you have the opportunity to communicate with Japanese people, this question might pop up during the conversation. Japanese people’s curiosity towards foreigners’ habits in the matter can be surprising at first. The fact is bathing is an important part of the Japanese way of life. Taking a bath is an essential moment in the Japanese everyday routine: after eating dinner, the average Japanese person will first take a bath and then go to sleep. If you wish to live your Japanese experience to the fullest, then bathing in Japan is definitely a must-do.

Daini-kotobiki-yu in Edogawa ward, Tokyo

The different bathing styles in Japan

Ochiai Yoshiiku: Comparison of Slender Hips Like Willows in Snow at the Yanagiya Bathouse

Japan’s love story with bathing is extremely old: bathing habits are said to have started as early as 700 B.C. in one of the numerous hot springs of the volcanic archipelago. Today, Japanese people still enjoy natural hot springs, called onsen in Japanese. Even if some onsen establishments can be found in the Tokyo area, for Japanese people they are often a good excuse for a weekend escapade to the countryside and staying in a nice and pricey Japanese style inn. Many of them will even be equipped with a rotenburo: an outdoor-style bath from which you can admire the surrounding nature or a nicely arranged Japanese garden. Such hot springs are often said to have medicinal or beauty properties according to their waters composition.

Before most houses owned a fully equipped bathroom, Japanese citizens would go to the public baths, sento. These have existed for over four hundred years; during the 16th century, it was even a place for social gatherings. This spirit can still be felt today as people going to the sento will often talk to each other while relaxing. Sadly, most people being equipped with a bathtub (called o-furo) , public baths tend to disappear and only the most beautifully painted or historical ones manage to survive.


The dos and don’ts of bathing in Japan

The following rules apply to individual baths, but also to public facilities such as sento and onsen.

1) Swimming suits and underwear are not allowed : you must undress completely in the undressing area before entering the bathroom.

2) While you can use it to hide your body outside the bath, you are not allowed to keep your towel inside the water. However, you can imitate many Japanese people in keeping a small, fresh wet towel on the top of your head : it will help you bear the heat of the bath.


3) Japanese baths are made to relax, not to wash yourself. It’s also a shared space, which is why you must use the showers be clean (body and hair) before entering the bath.

4) To do so, sit on the stool in front of the showers (don’t stand up). Do not keep the water flowing while you scrub yourself. Most establishments also provide small buckets often called kerorin to rinse yourself more easily ; just be mindful of the fellow bathers around you!


5) Make sure to wipe yourself sufficiently before going back to the dressing room.

6) If you are staying with a Japanese family or using our bath at Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan, please do not empty the bath before you leave! Japanese people are very careful of not wasting water : the same bath water will be kept hot and used by all family members.


The benefits of bathing

Even Japanese snow monkeys enjoy the benefits of a good bath.

The Japanese habit of bathing before going to sleep has many qualities that you can take advantage of as a tourist in Japan.

First, it will help you cope with travel stress and anxiety. Neil Morris, a psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton, did a study about bathing in 2002. He found out that bathing every day before going to sleep increased the optimism of his subjects. According to him, taking a bath is a good way to stop the time in our hectic lives, while the bath and hot water give us a womb-like isolation and comfort.

Bathing will also give you physical relief after a hard day of sightseeing! Bathing in hot water will increase your circulation, the pressure of the water will relieve your organs and your body will expel lactic acid more easily so your muscles will relax and your body aches will decrease.

Heating yourself up will also trick your body in cooling down, which will help it getting sleepy. A gentle and natural way to fight jet lag!


Yuzu bath

You might be surprised that bubble bath soap is hard to find in Japan. Yet, there are plenty of bath salts, sometimes imitating onsen properties, that you can put in your bath.
Another popular thing to put in the bath is Yuzu. Yuzu is a small citrus fruit famous overseas for its use in Japanese cuisine seasonings. Japanese people have a habit of putting yuzu in the bath on the day of the winter solstice. Onsen and public bath houses do it too. It is said to be relaxing thanks to its powerful aroma, to be good for the skin and to guard against the cold.


Bathing at Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan

If you have the chance, I strongly encourage you to experience the traditional onsen or sento bathing. However, as a foreigner, you must know that it can present two major difficulties.
The first one, although pretty obvious, is cultural: you will have to accept being naked in front of strangers. While shy people can end up finding themselves surprisingly comfortable in the Japanese public baths, it is important to note that wearing a bathsuit or a towel inside the bath is forbidden, so you will have almost nowhere to hide!
The second difficulty is regarding tattoos. While tattoos have become increasingly common in other countries, especially in the West, they are still heavily frowned upon in Japan and most onsen or sento will forbid access to people having a tattoo. The reason behind this is that in Japan tattoos are perceived as the mark of the yakuza, the Japanese gangsters.

As you might now, Tadaima Japan has opened its own Ryokan in Tokyo in the end of December 2017. At Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan, we have thought about the difficulties encountered by foreign travelers and want everyone to be able to give a try at the Japanese style bathing. Our o-furo is individual so everyone can bathe in it without worries. We have built it following the genuine traditional style you would find in a public sento or onsen with its tiles and bamboo accessories.

By the way, at Tadaima Japan Shinjuku Ryokan, the bath temperature is set up at 42 degrees Celcius/107 degrees Fahrenheit, which is ideal against body aches and for eliminating toxins. It is very hot though, so we do not recommend staying in the bath for more than 10 minutes, especially if you are not used to it.

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.