Japan is a country full to the brim with traditions, none more so that the art of getting clean. In fact, the Japanese seem fixated on cleanliness, that during my four months travelling around the country, I became proficient at it. But as with everything in Japan, there are rules and traditions on how to behave suitably.
For many nationalities, getting naked in front of the public doesn’t come naturally, but a hot ‘sento’ or ‘onsen’ public bath can wash away the aches and pains of the day and worth any mild embarrassment associated with loss of modesty.
For a start, you’re most likely to be the only non-Japanese so to avoid standing there completely naked with a look of confusion slapped across your face, I’ve put together this cheat sheet so you can saunter in like you own the joint. Plus, you’re going to need to know which bath is electrified right (no I’m not joking)!
What types are there?
Japanese sento (or onsen) come in many shapes and sizes, from the small-town bath to the ‘super sento’ in larger cities such as Kyoto and Tokyo. Choose the one you feel comfortable with and which suits your itinerary.
What to take?
Not much really. Yes, that means you will be absolutely, positively nude, so no need for the swim suit although you can take a small towel if need be. Most sento don’t provide body wash or shampoo so if this is part of your personal cleaning ritual, be sure to pack them along with a face towel and any other toiletries you need. It’s worth noting, if you’re sporting tattoos, then most likely you will be stared at so no need to panic. Upon entering the sento, leave your shoes in the shoe locker, pay at the reception or at the vending machine for tokens. It pays to drink some water beforehand to prevent dehydration.
Wearing nothing but a smile
Getting naked is part of the experience but fear not, men and women bathe separately. It probably won’t be in English so if all else fails, the characters to look out for are Men = 男 and Women = 女. Often the colour of noren (hanging curtain) is red for female and blue for male (good to see stereotyping is a global phenomenon). Once you’ve left your shoes and paid, find a locker to leave your clothes, keeping only a small towel (which you need to bring yourself). Then all that’s left to do, it hit the baths!
First things first
Before entering the hot bath, it is important to get clean. If you miss this step, you’re likely not to make friends very quickly. You’ll find open showers or waste height taps with small chairs that would suit a dwarf. Sit on the chair, fill a bucket and use the soap you brought yourself to wash off the day’s grime. The idea is to be clean absolutely before entering the bath for relaxation.
The toes test
Enter a bath naked but be sure to test the water temperature first and maybe don’t begin with the lightning bolt symbol above it. It contains a mild electrical current which is supposed to help your contract the muscles when lying in the water, therefore, relaxing you when you get out (hmmnnn). There will no doubt be other bathers but there is no need to chat or make eye contact if you don’t want to, I’m sure there will be a painting of Mt Fuji to stare at. But should you strike up conversation then talk quietly, remember that it’s supposed to be a relaxing experience, steeped in tradition, so kick back and enjoy it.
Once your body has reached peak levels of heat and you’re almost coma-chill, time to hit the cold plunge pool to cool off. Then, back to the stool to wash off again, followed by the hot pools again, repeating as many times as you feel the need. Yes, it may seem like an overly fastidious process, but it is what it is and who are we to mess with tradition!
What happens next?
You’ll sleep like a baby. As if you’re just finished battle with the Shogun and saved the city from a violent siege!