Japanese Bathhouses: A Basic Guide
-Do I have to be naked?
--Yes, you’ll have to be naked.
The biggest fear for most non-Japanese is the quasi-public nudity. Almost all baths are secluded from non-bathers to see and are gender separated so it is not at all like walking down Main Street in your birthday suit.
It is very understandable that taking a bath for the first time in Japan can be difficult for people from cultures not so accustomed to quasi-public nudity. Japanese, in general, are exposed to nudity from a young age—expose themselves for that matter! Thanks to small houses and many people using the single bath in a house families use the baths together. Even in school from a young age changing is done in classrooms and school trips often include using a group bath—gender separated of course. It is good to think about this context when first confronting getting nude with strangers in Japan. The other people there have done this thousands of time before and nothing about the baths is new. It is a daily activity just like going to the supermarket. Even having a non-Japanese person there is not a brand new experience for most Japanese. If you consider it a normal activity that everyone does, it should make it much easier. Lastly, once you get in the bath and get relaxed your fears and worries will quickly disappear.
Nudity aside there are a few basic rules about how to use the bath. Those can be found in the Manners & Risks section.
-What should I expect on my first experience in a Japanese bath?
--You should expect to wonder why you were worried about trying the bath in the first place! Here is a basic rundown of a sento experience.
- Typically you have to take your shoes off when entering. Most urban places have shoeboxes with keys. Sometimes the shoe boxes need 100 yen which will be returned when you take your shoes out. In some older sento my 27.5cm size shoes will not fit so I use two lockers.
- Enter the men’s or women’s side. Typically there will be an icon or English to go by if you cannot read kanji, but not always. Women use 女 or 婦人 [ふじん] while men use 男 or 紳士 [しんし]. A general rule of thumb is that children not yet in elementary school can enter either bath, however in some localities much older children can enter. Supersento and some sento have these doors after you pay and walk through a lobby. Older sento have the men’s and women’s doors on the outside of the building.
- Pay the entrance fee. Sometimes you pay at the counter situated between the men and women’s sides called a bandai [番台/ばんだい]. In places with a lobby you buy a ticket at a machine and then give it to the front desk or pay cash directly. A few places have you pay when you leave, mostly these are supersento that let you charge food and drink on your key number.
- At the front desk you might receive a locker key. You might have to exchange the key from your shoe locker in exchange for a locker key.
- Find your locker if you were given a key, or choose any locker available. Some supersento have coin operated lockers. In the vast majority of places the coin is returned when you put the key back. In very rural places or hotels there are no lockers, but only cubby holes.
- In the locker room at some sento smoking is still allowed. There is commonly a toilet, a chance that it will be Japanese style. There is sometimes a drink vending machine and, at supersento, a machine selling towels and soaps. At sento without a bandai there is typically a little window where you can buy soaps or towels from the person working the front without having to put your clothes back on.
- Take off your clothes and put them in the locker. Remember, no clothing is allowed in the bathing area.
- Rinse yourself off at the kakari-yu [掛かり湯/かかりゆ], the basin of water near the entrance, or use water from the baths.
- I like to wash first before entering the baths, some people do this last. When you wash use a towel to scrub your body. Most supersento and ryokan have body soap, shampoo and conditioner but most sento do not have any free soap so you’ll have to bring your own.
- Enjoy the baths. That is what you came for! More information on the Types of Baths and Types of Hot Springs.
- Remember to towel off as best you can before re-entering the changing room.
-What should I bring with me to the bath?
This varies on the type of place you are going to and your own bathing habits. In general at the least you will need a towel to use as a wash cloth and the carry around for modesty. A typical sento will not have any soap or shampoo for guests but supersentos, hotels and ryokans typically do.
My personal bag consists of the following:
- A normal washcloth sized towel to dry off with and carry around while using the baths
- A scrubbing nylon washcloth called a goshi-goshi towel [ゴシゴシタオル]. These can vary from soft to super hard. I use a normal hard one.
- A small bar of soap for washing my face.
- Refillable bottles with shampoo and conditioner from home or mini bottles.
- Toothbrush with a cap.
- Small toothpaste.
- Disposable razor.
- Small shaving cream.
- Plastic zipper pouch for inside the baths.
- Plastic drawstring bag to put the pouch in and prevent the stuff in my bag getting wet.
- A bottle of water and only water.
All of these items can be found at 100 Yen stores, pharmacies, and at sento themselves.
How should I act? What is OK?
Watch your fellow bathers—they do this daily. See what the other people are doing and do that. There are general manners that you can see in the Manners and Risks section. Also pay attention to the posters that are typically written in English.