For travelers and locals alike, onsen and sento represent not only a place to cleanse the body but also the soul. However, as it is a public bath, you have to follow some (sometimes unspoken) rules.
In this article, we’ll guide you through the steps and etiquettes of experiencing a true Japanese bath, ensuring you soak up every bit of its essence.
Before diving in, it’s essential to understand the difference between onsen and sento. While both are public baths, an onsen is a naturally occurring hot spring rich in minerals, believed to have healing properties. A sento, on the other hand, is a man-made public bathhouse, often found in urban areas.
So, if you want to feel “naturalness” (whatever it means), visiting an onsen area is the better choice. Such areas are often surrounded by mountains or forests, so the environment will also rejuvenate you. Or, if you want to wander through an urban area in Japan, finding a sento is the easier way to experience a public bath in Japan.
Before heading to a bathhouse, pack a few essentials:
Towel: While most establishments provide towels, bringing your own ensures you’re comfortable. Especially, a small towel is necessary when you take a public bath.
Soap and shampoo: Some bathhouses may not supply these, although many sell ones. Especially if you have your favorite soap, shampoo or rinse, bring some to use as usual.
When at an onsen or sento, it’s crucial to respect the local customs:
Clean First: Before entering the communal bath, clean your body. This is a sign of respect, ensuring the water remains clean for everyone.
No Swimwear: While some places allow visitors to wear swimwear, it’s more usual to take such public baths in the nude (only with a small towel).
Keep Quiet: Conversations should be kept low. The bathhouse is a place of relaxation and contemplation.
Tie Up Long Hair: If you have long hair, tie it up to prevent it from touching the water.
Don’t soak your towel in the water: This is also in order to keep the water clean. You can put the towel on your head, perhaps.
Don’t color your hair: Believe or not, somebody does this in the public bath, and some places has a notice to warn their visitors against it. Of course you should not, because it is not your own bathroom.
Tattoos have a complex history in Japan, often associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and other subcultures. As a result, many traditional bathhouses, both sentos and onsens, have policies against allowing individuals with tattoos to enter. On the other hand, this perspective is gradually changing, especially with the influx of international travelers and the global popularity of tattoos as a form of self-expression. Here’s what you need to know:
Tattoo Policies Vary: Not all bathhouses have strict no-tattoo policies. It’s essential to research or call ahead to check the establishment’s stance on tattoos. Some places may allow entry if the tattoo is small or can be easily covered.
Tattoo Cover-Ups: If you have a smaller tattoo, consider using waterproof tattoo cover-up patches or bandages. This can be a simple solution that allows you to enjoy the bathing experience without drawing attention to your ink.
Private Baths: For those who don’t want to navigate the tattoo policies, many onsen services offer private baths, known as “kashikiri.” These are especially popular among couples, families, or those with tattoos. You can enjoy the onsen experience without the worry of showing your tattoos.
If they say no, it’s no: The tattoo-phobia in Japan is not easy to overcome. It’s not you or they that are wrong―it’s just an established culture. So, if they can’t allow anyone with a tattoo on to take a public bath, people with a tattoo on should obey it. This is true of those who love a rub-on tattoo (or a temporary tattoo like a sticker), so be careful not to put such an instant tattoo on your skin before you go to an onsen or sento.
If you have tattoos and are keen on experiencing a traditional Japanese bath, it’s always best to be prepared. Understand the cultural context, respect the rules of the establishment, and find ways to navigate around the restrictions. With a bit of planning, you can fully immerse yourself in the serene world of sentos and onsens.
Once you’re aware of the etiquettes, it’s time to relax and enjoy the experience. Let the warm water envelop your body, feel the stress melting away, and let your mind wander. The mineral-rich waters of an onsen can be particularly therapeutic, believed to alleviate ailments like muscle pain and skin conditions.
After your bath, take some time to relax. Many bathhouses have relaxation areas with tatami mats, where you can lie down, read, or even nap. Enjoy a refreshing drink, often available at the establishment, and let your body cool down gradually.
In conclusion, a visit to an onsen or sento is an experience that goes beyond mere bathing. It’s a journey into the heart of Japanese culture, an opportunity to unwind, and a moment of introspection. Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a local looking for a weekend escape, the warm waters of a traditional Japanese bath await you. Embrace the tranquility, respect the customs, and let the experience transform you.
And more: do you want to communicate with local people in their language? Let’s learn some basic Japanese phrases saving your life.