travel

Bathing: much more than washing off

37 Comments
By Ryan Solberg

Hot spring… spa… bath house… I call it “onsen” because there is nothing like them in North America. Bathing is a big part of Japanese culture. Most bathe nightly. A big difference is that Japanese bathe for relaxation. In fact, they wash before bathing. I think they have it right; bathing is relaxing. Going to the onsen is the most relaxing time of my hectic life.

For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing, especially for men. We fear that another guy will check out our family jewels. With this, I think gaijin miss an important and fantastic part of Japanese culture. It took me two years in living in Japan for a second time before I would even consider going to the onsen. After I tried it, I regret not going sooner. I quickly realized that people don’t look at me and most are covering up with their little towel.

My first time came when we went on a bus trip to Kyoto. We spent a night at a shrine. Their onsen closed at 12 midnight, so I decided to wait until 11:30 p.m. and go, hoping no one would be there. I was right, no one was there…except for six monks. When I saw them, I wanted to run but I was already there. I felt embarrassed but I enjoyed the bath.

They basically have two types of onsen, hotel onsens and public onsens. For me, I enjoy public onsens the most. Public onsens usually cost anywhere from 500-2,000 yen. They usually have a big common room or an izakaya style restaurant. They also have massage services or/and massage chairs. Most also have sleeping rooms where you can take a nap. The baths are separated male and female.

Most public onsens have several different styles of baths plus saunas. The following is a list of common styles at the onsens I go to.

Salt bath: Imported from a natural salt water hot spring. This is very good for the skin and you can float. Let me warn you that it stings especially if you have any cuts.

Electric bath: This has two sections for the level of electricity. It has electric pulses going through the water. It is excellent for stiff muscles. It does have a strange sensation. The high level side is too strong for me.

Jet bath: it’s very similar to a jacuzzi except they are for one. They are shallow and you lay rather than sit.

Rock bath: This one is in the picture shown. It is a hot bath outside and surrounded in rocks. Usually, the temperature is between 40-43 C and has two sections -- regular depth which comes up to my mid-section and a deep one that is around my mid chest (I’m 6′3″). The deep one is my favorite.

Pot bath: These are like a big tea cup without the handle. I find the water to be lukewarm. The onsens I go to have plain water, Chinese tea or English tea styles.

Shape-up bath: This is a standing bath with really strong jets. It has two rows and is meant for one person per row. The idea is you hold the rails and let the jets massage you. All the shaking is supposed to shape up your body.

Cold water bath: I think the temperature at this one is about 14-17 C. Usually used after you come out of the sauna to cool you off.

Doze hot bath: This is basically a stone bed with a head rest. It is slightly slanted with about a centimeter of hot water running down. You can take a nap here.

Gokurakuyu, which is the one I usually go to, has a specialty bath that changes often. For example, they’ve had wine bath, rubber ducky bath and many more.

My wife and I go to the onsen at least once a month and enjoy ourselves. We have dinner at the restaurant. We then hit the baths for 40 minutes. After that, we sit side by side on the massage chairs for 20 minutes. This is our date night and a night we extremely enjoy.

If you live here or are coming here for a vacation, you need to try the onsen experience. This is one part of Japanese culture that you can’t miss. You need to put your fears aside and just do it. You won’t regret it. By the way, if you have tattoos, most won’t allow you to enter.

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by far & away the most relaxing way to spend time in japan. lots of the places have family baths (kazokuburo) these days if you prefer the privacy of just being with your family (or loved one ;-). they usually have a time limit though, but an hour should be enough. although i often go to the public baths, i prefer the overnight stays at a ryokan . you can take numerous baths & then kick back & chill in your room with a cold beer or a nice sake. be sure to find one that serves good meals though.

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For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing, especially for men.

Maybe for THAT gaijin being nude in front of the same six is embarrassing but in U.S. we are trained from Junior High on to be use to it e.g. taking showers after gym class (where did this guy go to school at?).

When I was stationed at Mt. Fuji I really enjoyed being able to just lay down in the sauna room with your head on a brick (now that's relaxing) unlike in the U.S. where everyone sits up. And then topping that off with a quick shower and into the hot bath - Oh yeah baby the Japanese know how to relax. The only thing missing is a big screen TV with the sports channel on - of course that could prove deadly since people would stay in the hot bath too long watching the game.

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I have to agree with the above poster. In Australia it's common for schools and sports clubs/ pools/ gyms etc, to have one open shower room for each gender. I think on a heap of Aussies actually like getting their kit off, just as many Europeans or even Americans would. Any one nervous about an onsen from my country probably just isn't used to the social or communal nature of it at first, but any fears are quickly forgotten about.

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I might be wrong, but usually, electric baths and other assorted novelty baths are more typical of sentou as opposed to onsen. This isn't always necessarily the case but there is often confusion between some writers on what an onsen actually is.

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I have bathed in hot springs at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur California. I met a Japanese women in the tubs.

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yes. i've also bathed in hot springs in the states. not sure if this guy does much traveling .

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For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing, especially for men.

Oh - by the way - you should try the next (for pros) level, the "Konyoku" then that is - mixed onsen. It is exactly like the segregated one, except it is not segregated. Although I'm an European gaijin (male), I got used pretty quick and learned to ignore everybody else (yup - male OR female)...

Actually I never had any issues with my or others' nudity.

The most interesting discussion I've had with Japanese persons were while bathing nacked and drinking lots of sake - they really open up and are usually very friendly.

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Baths are great here. I am male and I do have male friends, and really only a very small percentage are overly uncomfortable about going to a public bath. Most everyone wants to go in my experienc, and after going liked it and want to go again.

OK confusing point and not at all mentioned in the article so I will clarify for any newbies to J bathing-- there are 2 TYPES OF BATHING: onsen and sento.

ONSEN are hot springs bubblin up from vulcanically heated underground. They have many types of minerals and are often thought to be good for curing this or that ailment. They are sometimes clear water, sometimes murky white or red or brown from the minerals. You usually stay at a ryokan/ hotel to enjoy an onsen, but onsen towns will usually have public bathing facilities where you can pay, bathe and leave, w/o paying for staying overnight. Some hotels will let you do that for that matter. You may find jets, salts, denki (electric bath) etc in an onsen, but you may not. Onsen means volcanic hot springs.

SENTO is a public bath with just hot water in them. You don't stay overnight. This is from the days when most houses didn't have baths in them and all in the neighborhood would go to the local sento to bathe. Normal water, no mineral properties, but there will often be a denki (electric) bath, a cold water bath a jet bath etc. Sento are often in old buildings that have a lot of atmoshpere, and are really only left in big cities these days, Tokyo kyoto osaka etc. Now that everyone has bath at home, sento are closing down at a high rate.

TO (slightly) COMPLICATE THINGS (for foreigners) if a hotel has a public bath in it for all the hotel customers that does not come from mineral hot springs, it will be referred to as a sento. Neighborhood folks are generally not allowed, ie only stay-over customers, and it is there because the shower unit in your room is thought to be small or it is non-existant. Furthermore in Onsen towns where there is a public bathing facility where you don't have to stay over night those are often called sento. So sento can sometimes be onsen and onsen can sometimes be sento.

Anyway all new to or coming to Jpn should check out bathing culture. It is very cool and relaxing. I go to the local sento every night.

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Onsens are awesome. Kusatsu in Gunma is only a few hours from Tokyo so could be done in a day-trip. 2 days is better but more expensive of course.

Small town you can laze about with several nice outdoor public baths, from 500 yen to 800 yen or thereabouts.

Homepage has a pic of the water source in the middle of the town. Stinks of sulfur but looks great.

http://www.kusatsu-onsen.ne.jp/foreign/index.html

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Wonder why no one has included the snow monkey onsen. Interesting to watch but I didn't want to join them.

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For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing

Guess what - many countries have the same bathing culture as Japan. you know nothing about the world.

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I dont know about the mens side, never having been in there, but on the womens side, I feel uncomfortable sometimes about being naked, but only because it seems to be acceptable behaviour, especially in some countryside onsens I have been to, to allow your children (and sometimes adults too) to surround the only foreigner in the place and watch with huge, amazed eyes while she showers!

I don`t have a problem with nudity at all, mine or anyone elses, but it is hard to relax with 8 pairs of eyes on you not 4 feet away from you, and the main target of the staring is somewhere between your chin and your belly (or these days if I am entirely honest chin and knees :( !!!)

But despite the uncomfortable atmosphere at times, I do love onsen, and once I am in the bath, I generally find people really friendly, especially once they find out I have kids - always an ice-breaker when one is chatting with naked strangers!

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kirakira25 - haha - Japanese really love to compare bodies (body parts) don't they? It's the same for males :)))

Don't worry, for them talking about or looking at somebody else's body is far more natural and normal than for gaijins. Probably they don't even notice they embarrass you so much, otherwise they will soon be quick to look away. If you'd say something like "Chotto - hazukashii kedo" - I'm sure they'll stop staring at you immediately, but don't be surprised if they start asking questions about various parts and tools sizes...

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kirakira: I felt the same way when I joined the gym. The older woman especially seemed to stare at me, naked or not, and I felt a little uncomfortable at first. Now I guess people are used to seeing me so I'm feeling quite at home there.

Never been to an onsen, though. The naked thing doesn't bother me at all but I'm just not all that excited about bathing with strangers. Tried to go to a sento once and got kicked out because of my tattoo.

The statement that gaijin feel embarrassed being nude in front of people of the same sex is a very wide-sweeping and incorrect generalization. It annoys me when someone tries to guess how all non-Japanese people feel towards something. Gaijin are different people, from different countries with different ideas, cultures, opinions and feelings.

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kirakira & dolphingirl, not to worry. the japanese women are just envious . hence the stares.

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kirakira & dolphingirl, not to worry. the japanese women are just envious . hence the stares.

no, they are not envious.

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I love the onsen -- I try to go once a week if I have time.

The author forgot the doro-yu or mud bath. There are only about 13 natural mud baths around Japan, but if you get the chance, try it! It feels slimy at first, but your skin feels much better after you get out. My favorite place is Beppu, in Oita.

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I hate onsens. Just too damn hot for moi! I don't care about the natives checking out the sausage, I mean half the world owns one but the old men and young boys peeing in the water is somewhat off putting.......

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If you live in Osaka you must try Spaworld in Shin Imamiya. Crazy baths themed Asian and European, a huge room for relaxation then waterslides and family fun on the top floor. They often have 1000 Yen campaign months.

Follow this up with cheap beerz and Kushi Katsu next door and you can have a nice night. Always take visitors here and they say they wont forget that day for a long time.

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DentShop: entrance in SpaWorld costs always 1,000 yen if you dont use pool full of kids and your target is just spa. i feel comfortable in onsen, except of the first time when i went to spaword and a baby boy was staring at me- in this moment i really felt very incomfortable. lately i went to onsen in hokkaido, this was just great

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It's certainly news to me that "For gaijin, being nude in front of the same sex is embarrassing, especially for men."

This guy has a few things to work out on body image. He must not have spent much time in a swimming pool change room, or a (gasp!) nude beach.

The way I figure it, if someone wants to look at me, let them. Why would I worry about that?

--

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Seriously, the guy is spot on when he states that gaijin, esp USA, do not like to be nude in public. I know that it sticks in the craw of some but it is true. In the US, nudity has been hardwired to be bad, just like socialism. The US went nuts over a .5 second nipple shot of Janet Jackson a few years back. Most N. Americans do not have a spa culture like in German/Scandinavia.

I will say that from my first visits to Japan I fell in love with bathing culture and now go every chance I get. We could not have them in the US as most people do not want to rid public busses due to having to be around "others" let alone bathe with "others." Also, as people seem to have no self control in the states, bath houses would not be used for bathing.

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You are supposed to wash yourself clean before dipping into the water but sincei heard about the peeing I do the reverse.

Hot and cold bath 3 times alternately is supposed to make your body strong from cold, probably even flu (?).

When you look different people stare at you. I easily blend in so I haven't experienced it... Well, not really sure coz I also heard about window shoppers (miru dake) but no harm is done so no problem.

I love onsen in winter but I tried also summer and it was refreshing as well.

More not mentioned in this article and Japanese are very creative in finding ways to satisfy their customers so I recommend you should try it.

Btw, go for a little expensive ones. Usually, 500 yen sento in big cities are nothing but hot water.

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Awful places. I have no desire to sit in used bathwater full of old men and their sundry effluvia.

I will have a bath when I choose - in my own clean bath.

And if the locals are so besotted by the idea of cleanliness that having a bath becomes a leisure pursuit, riddle me these: a) why is there STILL no soap in station kharzies and b) why do they think pointing a sneeze vaguely towards a mobile phone counts as disease control?

Oh, I forgot. This is unique Japanese culture. No critical thought required or desired. Baaaaa.

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"Awful places"

I've been to quite a few onsens and not one of them was awful. In fact, most of them were quite wonderful!

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Ivan, obviously you have never dished out enough money to stay at a ryokan with rooms that have their own personal onsen-water baths.

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The real Onsens use fresh naturally heated water, the rest are nothing more then glorified swimming pools or hot tubs using recycled water. Before you go check it out.

The nasty thing about Onsens is that ,yes, people do wash first, but ironically wash sitting down, on the part of their body that is in most need of a cleaning.

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And then there is the enzyme (酵素風呂) bath. Another unique refreshing experience. Google it and you will see that the idea has been imported in the U.S. from Japan.

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much more than washing off

but not THAT much more...ultimately, its still just a bath

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I've always wanted to go the ones that are outside in the snow... Steamy water and snow falling...

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Don't like hot spring and all those. It is just too hot for me. I prefer the water to be around 15-20 degree C even in winter time when it is below 0. It pretty much wakes me up.

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The nasty thing about Onsens is that ,yes, people do wash first, but ironically wash sitting down, on the part of their body that is in most need of a cleaning.

Ah! That could explain the staring then! I refuse to sit on those little stools - yeuwch!

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Ah! That could explain the staring then! I refuse to sit on those little stools - yeuwch!

You can opt to sit on your ko'xones - yeuwch!

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The best onsen experience is being in an uncovered rotemboro in midwinter, while snow falls on your head.

My strangest onsen experience was walking into the onsen and finding it completely empty except for a naked sumo wrestler. He looked pretty shocked at the sight of a naked gaijin, so I suppose we were quits.

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Bathing with random strangers? I've never understood the appeal. Is it some sort of kinship people feel to be naked with strangers? Sorry, I much prefer to bathe in a private onsen with aan intimate of the opposite sex. The writer, and many others, like bathing with men - and I have no problem with his choice.

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Looking forward to bathing at an onsen. Deep water bath at the hotel. Lovely.

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A small clarification on bathing cultures. There are bathing cultures in the US. The vast majority of Native American tribes have been doing this for centuries. It is heavily enmessed with the spirtituality and focuses of their respective tribes and associations. Not just the formal affairs with fasting, prayers and the sweatbaths, but less formal as well.

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