For the first 20 years of my life I would never have thought I'd say this, but now I can't imagine differently--public bathing is my favorite thing about Japan.
Onsen are baths that use natural mineral water from hot springs. Sento use just heated tap water with or without added minerals. Onsen are more expensive and usually offer nicer facilities with outdoor baths 露天風呂 rotenburo, often with great views of the ocean, mountains, or a garden. Sento have their own local charm--I remember one I visited in Kobe, its tiled wall still with a floor-to-ceiling crack in it from the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Apparently I've picked up the Kansai (western Japan) custom of calling all bathing facilities onsen, the ones with hot-spring water we say are 天然温泉 ten-nen onsen, natural onsen. So in this article I mostly just use "onsen"!
Public bathing is an old custom in Japan, brought originally from India as a Buddhist religious rite in the early 700s. Hot baths gradually became accessible to the general public for a fee (sento are about 400 yen or $4 everywhere in Japan), and after more than a thousand years of evolution in design and custom, they are still around today for those of us gaijin courageous enough to give it a try.
It takes a bit of courage to go into an onsen because not only is everyone naked and bathing in front of each other, but onsen are just so Japanese. There was nothing in my culture at least that prepared me for what to do when I first entered a a tiny sento near my dormitory in Kyoto. No instructions posted in English anywhere, no one except my Finnish friend Jenni (and at least she had her country's sauna culture to fall back on) to show me what to do.
To start off, the whole nakedness thing I got over pretty quickly. There's this post about how much we Westerners have been influenced by Christianity; I'm pretty sure if Christianity had the same influence in Japan onsen would not exist anymore, though now mixed bathing is very rare and hard to find (not that I'd go looking). So not to worry, onsen are separated by gender and you never have to see/be seen by anyone of the opposite sex, except young children in with a parent ( Japanese custom again: families bathe together when children are small). When I first entered that sento in Kyoto, I couldn't decide which was worse--that I was naked with complete strangers or that I was naked with a friend. In the end, neither mattered. No one in the onsen cares or notices "we are all naked here". No one tries to have an "onsen-ready" body and who was I to be ashamed of my shape when women three times my age with amazing amounts of bags, sags, and scars were enjoying the hot water without a second thought? After a while I stopped noticing too.
There's one thing about onsen I've never had to worry about: tattoos. Most public baths have signage denying entry to those with tattoos. The taboo against tattoos seems to go back as far as public bathing itself in Japan, but actually it's meant to keep out yakuza, Japanese organized crime. I always wonder at the logic of this because yakuza tattoos have a very distinctive style (and are BIG for one thing) and what does a white girl's butterfly on her bum have anything to do with a crime syndicate? But it seems pointless to argue. If you have a tattoo, try taping or bandaging it before going in, if it's small it probably won't be a problem. That said, not many Japanese are used to seeing people with tattoos. It's "scary". Some old lady might grumble about you to management, and you could be asked to leave. I've not heard of it happening really, but I'm sure it's a possibility.
Anyway, how does one try to look like they know what they're doing in an onsen? Yuya loves onsen but when we go, we enter seperately, so I'm always on my own and very often the only non-Japanese there. I always have to figure things out for myself. Luckily, most onsen have a lot of the same features and require the same etiquette. Normally, no one's allowed to take pictures in an onsen. Naturally. But this time, I was completely alone in this little hotel onsen, so I grabbed the chance to get a few photos for this blog! So here we go:
Before you set off for the onsen, remember what to bring. For a small local sento, think showering at the gym. You will need a towel to dry with, any clean clothes/makeup you need, a small towel to wash with, a hair tie (if you have long hair) and shampoo/body soap. For onsen, the shampoo and soap is provided. We always bring a plastic baggy to put our wet towels/dirty clothes in afterwards.
The first thing you do when you walk into an onsen, before you even pay the fee, is take off your shoes. Near the shoe-removal area there will either be lockers or a shelf for leaving your shoes. If there are slippers provided, put them on. Then look for a desk with people behind it to pay the bathing fee. Onsen can range anywhere from $4 to $25 (the most we ever paid, anyway). Sometimes at the desk you exchange your little shoe-locker key for a bigger key with a stretchy ring on it. Keep it around your wrist, even when you go into the bath. Then look for a set of red and blue noren curtains (on very small sento they may be hung outside the building). Red is always the entrance to the women's changing rooms and baths, and blue is always the men's, marked with the kanji 女 and 男 respectively. Don't mix them up! Yuya and I always have to part ways here and agree on a time to leave.
After ducking through your curtain, the first thing you should look for is...more lockers! If your key has a number on it, find the locker with that number. If you weren't given a key, choose any open locker. Some little old sento have no lockers but baskets to put your things in. This onsen in Wakayama I visited recently had a fun mix of both:
Once you've got your space for your stuff, undress. All of it comes off! Don't forget jewelry. I also brush out my hair, and make sure not to forget a hair tie. In this little changing room you'll find things like a bathroom, sinks for washing off makeup. Larger facilities have full-on powder rooms with free blow-dryers and samples of all kinds of beauty products, and random things like massage chairs and vending machines for toiletries. Once you're good and naked, head towards the steamy sliding glass doors. Go through and find something like this:
Grab a plastic bowl and a stool and set yourself down in front of a showerhead. Take your time washing yourself. After all, when was the last time you really took time make a lather, to wash each toe carefully and individually?
After I wash my hair, I wring it out and put it up with the hair tie I DIDN'T forget in my locker. It's rude to let your hair down in the bath. Once you've finished washing, make sure you are rinsed and free of soap. Take a minute to wash your station and stool with the showerhead or bowl and put it back the way you found it. If you brought your own body wash or something other than the washcloth, you should put it back in your locker (and dry off a bit so you're not dripping wet in the changing room) and not leave it at the bathing station.
And now, finally, comes the best part...
The bath!! A lot of onsen have signs or posters telling you the mineral makeup of the water and all the ailments it's good for. Newer places have digital displays with the water temp (in Celsius of course).
You can enjoy the bath however you like, provided you are clean and quiet, and don't let your wash towel touch the bath water. Some women put it on their heads or on the side of the tub. I like to rinse it in cold water from the washing station (never wring it into the bath water) and keep it handy for when I feel too hot, or to cover myself a bit when walking between baths.
I like to soak and stretch, and sit on the side for a bit when I get too hot, and soak some more. A lot of onsen and sento have jaccuzzi or jetted tubs, some have different baths with herbal essences. Old sento sometimes have "denki buro" or electric baths--yup, imagine jolts of electricity tingling your skin as you bathe. Only once I had the misfortune of putting my legs in one before I realized what it was. And then there are "water baths" of just cold water to dip in if you get too hot! I'll never forget Jenni sitting up to her neck in the water bath saying "it's just like Finland's sea in summer!" --this meant it was so cold it made my bones ache.
My favorite bath of all is the rotenburo, open-air bath. Don't worry, they're screened from the outside world, and some offer beautiful views and gardens. This one was quite small but in the shape of a boat, how cute is that? It was nighttime so I didn't have much of a view, but I could hear the waves on the beach nearby. Once in Nikko I spent an afternoon in an open-air bath in the middle of a pine forest as snow fell. I'll never forget that experience.
After you've enjoyed the baths to your heart's content and you're ready get out, head back to the locker room after dabbing yourself off and and do what you need to do to leave. Success!
In the four years I've been here, I've been to so many different kinds of public bath. Some "super-sento" like Spa World in Osaka or Oedo Onsen in Minoo are like theme parks: there are pools that require a bathing suit (and then it's mixed gender), all kinds of spa treatments (for extra fees), ganban-nyoku (hot rock bathing? You just lie in a dark, heated/scented room on hot rocks) massages, etc. Once I bathed in a wine bath the steam of which I swear made me feel tipsy, another time in a sulfur-water bath straight from the source underground that had me smelling funny for days afterwards.
Onsen are good for the soul and skin, and they are just the thing after a long day of travel, hiking, sports, or just a stressful day at work. They're affordable and always clean. I still always have a bit of anxiety going into a new onsen by myself, but since I've figured out the above etiquette, I can just let myself enjoy the experience. I highly recommend you at least try onsen if you visit Japan!