Taking a bath seems simple enough. Something along the lines of "run the tap, allow to fill and get in" is pretty much how most Westerners are trained to do it. In Japan, however, the tradition of bathing is an ancient one that was elevated to something of an art, a transformational and spiritual experience that, due to its communal nature, bonded communities in traditional Japanese society.
There are two types of Japanese baths, differentiated primarily by the water used. A sento is a local bathhouse that uses heated tap water. Sentos used to exist in most Japanese suburbs, as many homes did not contain bathtubs. Nowadays, sentos are less common but are still popular with older generations. Conversely, onsens are bathhouses that use geothermal hot spring water, made possible by Japan’s widespread volcanic activity, and saturated with what are believed to be beneficial minerals.
While onsen setups vary a little, from small family-run establishments to luxurious splays of multiple baths with varying temperatures and mineral properties, the fundamental process and etiquette is generally the same. Whether you’ve visited an onsen before and been a little confused, or if you’re completely new to the practice, here’s a step-by-step to make things crystal clear. After all, it’s not fun to find yourself wandering around naked having zero clue what to do. Trust me.
Take it all off!
Once you remove your shoes at the entrance, you may go barefoot in the locker room, or use slippers if provided. The large majority of onsen today are segregated into male and female areas. Most also switch the male and female spaces periodically, so be careful when entering as your previous side may now be reserved for the opposite sex.
And yes, you must be nude. Wearing a bathing suit isn’t an option, and actually, the nudity required for onsen bathing is key to the experience. In a subtle celebration of Japan’s egalitarian ideals, we are reminded that once we strip ourselves of all external elements, we are all equal. It goes without saying then, that bath nudity is nothing to be fussed over in Japanese society—it’s as every day as miso and rice. Absolutely everyone uses onsen in Japan—from teens to grandmothers, chattering friends to solo soakers, all are welcome. So don’t let a little nakedness put you off.
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