Japanese Public Baths – sento, onsen and why you should try them

Of all the things that seem to raise eyebrows when people ask us about our trips to Japan, public bathing seems to be the biggest. It seems that many people, at least from the Anglosphere, can’t get their heads around the joys of sharing the experience of soaking with strangers (of course our northern European friends, who are used to not just public saunas, but mixed-gender naked mixing have no problems with the concept; and obviously our Japanese friends are the same). There also seems to be a lot of angst out on the Internet about going to a public bath in Japan, with stories abounding of who can and can’t go, crazy misconceptions about what a public bath is and how you go about visiting one. Hopefully this post will go a little way to convincing everyone that public bathing is awesome, not difficult and something worth checking out. And if I don’t convince you, consider it for your health.

Get your terminology right

A ‘public bath’ in Japan is called a sento. The sento is the bathing facility offered to the community to get clean, relax and socialise. There are two types of sento – a “general” sento which is for the public to use as a bath and “amusement” sento (sometimes called super-sento) which is more of a day out. An onsen is a natural hot spring. So a sento can be at an onsen, but not all sento are onsen. And many baths at onsen are not sento. It can be tricky – if you really care, start with this article.

Sometimes people confuse ryokan with onsen. A ryokan is a Japanese style inn, and while they are predominantly found at onsen, just because something is called an ryokan doesn’t necessarily mean it has a public bath.

“But you’re naked!”

I have to say my initial response to this is ‘Duh – it’s bathing’. And I have never had that hang-up that seems to afflict so many from English speaking countries – the idea that naked automatically equals sexual. Here’s the thing – in the context of everyone else being naked, at the baths, getting on with getting clean and relaxing, it doesn’t seem weird.  No-one is going to stare at you, or check you out. And it is not sexual. People bring their kids (and it is not unusual to see little boys on the women’s side and little girls on the men’s side – they are there with their parent). Unlike many saunas or spas in Europe, baths in Japan are almost always separated by gender so if you are still a little bit weirded out by being naked with strangers, at least they are strangers of the same gender.

“I would love to go to a public bath, but I have a tattoo and I know they are banned”

Let’s get this one out of the way. There are a lot of posts on the internet warning people that tattoos are banned in sento and onsen. There are websites devoted to letting you know what places allow people with tattoos in, and huge swathes of chat groups discussing how they will hire a private bath (more on that later) due to the fact they have a tattoo. To take the internet at face value, people with tattoos don’t get to go to public baths in Japan.

I have to say if my personal experience is anything to go by, this is not really the case. I have a large tattoo. How large? Well if I followed the suggestions on some sites that to visit a public bath in Japan I would have to cover it with a plaster, it would look like I had just had some major organs removed, as my tattoo is across my whole back from my bottom ribs to the top of my derriere.

Yes, that big

Yet I have had very few problems with public bathing in Japan. The only people to ever stare or point have all been under the age of three, and to be honest considering the places they encountered me I am not sure if they were pointing because of the tattoo, the fact I was the first foreigner they had seen at the baths, or both. In fact, I have had plenty of people – old ladies mainly – talk to me, asking where I am from and even in a few cases compliment me. And if anyone is going to be offended by my tattoo I am guessing it is going to be old ladies, right? Seriously I have never had dirty looks, tsking, whispers behind my back, nothing. Of course I am a middle-aged white woman so my experience may not be universal. I have seen a few younger Japanese women with small tattoos, and my husband tells me it is not unusual to see men with back or sleeve tattoos.

The “general” sento I mentioned above are not allowed to deny people with tattoos entry. However super-sento are allowed to if this wish. This is to do with the fact that “general” sento are bound by laws that regulate them, including how much they can charge and the fact they can not ban people with tattoos. There have been one or two places I didn’t go in to because they explicitly stated they banned tattoos. But these had signs in the reception that you could see before you even took your shoes off, usually in Japanese and English and with obvious signage. But I have been to dozens of baths in Japan – from tiny little villages to giant inner-city Sento to super-fancy resorts to rural bathing complexes – and have only ever encountered two places with signs at the door asking me not to bring my tattoos in.

And it’s not just me. As Matt Trudeau says in an article about tattoos in Japan:

Many of the articles reported online or in English language newspapers love to point out the tattoo stigma in Japan, and they often include some personal anecdote of being refused entry at one onsen or another. This is part and parcel of the seemingly never-ending desire to highlight cultural differences – it makes for good reading even if it does exacerbate the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’. These stories are undoubtedly true but it’s important to remember that they’re likely not aware of all the times that didn’t happen. One negative experience is not the norm.

Many – everyone I’ve spoken to – tattooed foreigners visiting or living in Japan will quickly tell you that they’ve never had issue with taking the bus and train or visiting an onsen, beach, or hotel (pools can be a different issue as there are usually lots of children present) even the ones sporting ‘tattoos prohibited’ signs.

“I’ll just hire a private bath”

You can do that. I never have, but some people who really can’t handle the thought of getting naked with strangers say this is the option for them. You won’t find a private bath option at a sento (it’s a public bath) but some ryokan and onsen will offer them. They are also sometimes offered as ‘family baths’. These can be attached to specific rooms at a ryokan, or sometimes you can book the public bath for yourself for an hour. This is probably your only option if you want to share your bathing with someone of the opposite gender. Be aware that this is a more expensive option than using the ‘public’ facilities and often you will miss out on speciality baths, saunas etc.

Photo by Kentaro Ohno

“I’m embarrassed I will do the wrong thing”

Don’t worry, it is really not that hard to get things right in the baths. There are lots and lots and lots of websites offering guidance. Here is my brief run-down on how not to embarrass yourself and have a good time:

Bring the right stuff – some places will hire towels and sell toilettries; some of the more fancy places will have free toilettries (many companies use it as a marketing opportunity). But some will not. My advice is to bring a towel, and bring at least the basic toilettries. You can put them in a dinky basket as many Japanese seem to do, or at the very least a waterproof bag, as it is going to get wet.

Take your shoes off – it will be pretty obvious where at the entrance you have to take your shoes off. Many places will have shoe lockers, often with keys that you exchange at reception for a key to a clothes locker. If you have giant feet like Steve, you might need one locker for each shoe. If that is the case for you, hilarity is sure to ensue.

Pay and enter – this is where you can hire your towel etc. if you didn’t bring your own. Males and females split up and go in to their own dressing rooms. The sign for the women’s side is 女 and the side for the men’s is 男. Sometimes both the curtains have the same character , which can be confusing but usually the women’s side is red and the men’s is blue. The people at the reception are sure to put you right if you look confused. Sometimes payment is via a vending machine, but there are still people manning the reception so if it is all too difficult ask them to help (even sign language should be enough!) Children’s prices are often based on what grade they are at school (elementary, middle or highschool).

Using the change room – here is where you get undressed and leave everything except your hand towel and toiletries. Sometimes there are lockers, and you will have a key on a band to put around your wrist or ankle. Sometimes there are just baskets. Once you are naked you go through to the baths. Don’t worry if you are still a bit shy and want to wrap yourself in a towel, it’s perfectly normal (though your towel might end up getting a bit wet – it is really steamy in most baths!)

 

WASH YOURSELF – okay, this is the one thing you can’t get wrong and get away with. If your fellow bathers are going to look at you, now is the time, but only because they want to make sure you get this right. Japanese people wash themselves and then rinse every little bit of soap off before getting in the bath. You have to do the same. There are often ‘Western style’ stand-up showers but the norm is to sit on a stool at a wash point that has shower heads and taps. However you do it, wash yourself all over and rinse, then rinse again. Many people will wash their hair, shave, brush their teeth at this point. Just make sure you get totally clean and then have no residue before you get in the bath. Do your best not to splash anyone else.

Photo credit: kirainet via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Go soak – this is where you get to lower yourself in the bath and relax. In smaller places there will be only one bath, in others there will be a range, including baths at different temperatures, perfumed baths, spa baths, even electric baths (yes they exist, yes I have been in one). You will see some people with towels on their head – this is to catch the condensation that sometimes falls from the ceiling (and is a convenient way to keep you towel close to hand). Don’t put your face or hair in the bath. Do not put anything other than your body in the bath – no towels, face washers, scrubbers or soap.

Most places will also have a sauna – and often the sauna will have a television in it (sometimes the television is outside so you can watch it while you are in the rotemburo – open air bath). If you are going to use the sauna make sure that a) you either use a plastic mat if one is on offer or use your towel if there are none and b) shower off before you go in the baths again.

 

Rinse – while the mineral waters of the onsen may claim miraculous properties, often this is not stuff you want settling on your skin all day.

Dry and dress – Obvious. Many changing rooms will have hair-driers and sometimes even combs, brushes, q-tips etc. on offer. Most will have a set of scales. Take your time, enjoy feeling clean, head out.

Food and drink – many sento will have a restaurant attached, and it is not unusual after a bath to spread out on the tatami, enjoy something good to eat and watch a bit of TV before leaving. All will have vending machines (this is Japan after all) and the traditional after bath beverage is milk, flavoured or otherwise. I don’t know why. Willem’s favourite thing after a bath was the coin operated massage chairs.

 

“Okay, you have convinced me, where do I find these places?”

Photo by Bounta Nanthavong

A good place to start is the tourist information office of where you are visiting. Some may not understand when you ask about sento, as it seems not many foreigners seem interested in them and the tourist information people might think you are confused. Here is an English website that has over 900 sento listed.   If you are looking for onsen this English language website is a good place to start. Or try this one http://www.onsenjapan.net/. The symbol for onsen is ♨️ and you will find it on maps in Japan, signage and often it will be used in listings for ryokan to show that they have onsen.

“Look I am sure it’s great, but I don’t really know …”

You know what? That’s cool. It is not compulsory to go to a public bath if you visit Japan – and I say this as someone who is proud to have never taken part in karaoke, anywhere, ever, including on four trips to Japan; and yet many people I know who go to Japan make it a priority. I find public baths to be great. Maybe you don’t. But please don’t avoid them only because you are worried about making a mistake, or that you have a tattoo, or that people are going to stare. It will be fine. I promise.

Many thanks to my friend Noriko who read through this article and checked it for me. All mistakes are still mine not hers!

 

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  2 comments for “Japanese Public Baths – sento, onsen and why you should try them

  1. April 24, 2017 at 09:26

    Thank you so much for this post, you’ve cleared up many questions I was too embarrassed to ask. My daughter is set to travel and hopefully work in Japan and I’m keen to visit her there. Will be sharing this article. Love the new layout too.

    • Natalia
      April 24, 2017 at 10:43

      No problems Tamara. If you or your daughter have any questions don’t hesitate to ask!
      (and thanks for the compliment on the new layout 🙂 )

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