Japanese Bath Culture
flickr image by Vincent_AF

Japanese Bath Culture


Bathing is a large part of Japanese culture. It is such an important ritual that the term for bath, “furo”, is often politely referred to as, “Ofuro” with an honorific “O”. It is one of the most essential parts of the Japanese way of life, just like sleeping on a Tatami mat, or using Miso for cooking. Taking a Japanese Bath not only relaxes the body but also cleanses the spirit, leaving one feeling energized and refreshed.

For such an essential and authentic part of the Japanese culture, it is surprisingly easy for travelers from other parts of the world to experience this ritual. In large cities such as Tokyo or Osaka, many hotels would have limited space and would only offer westernized bathroom with showers. However, capsule hotels, which mainly target busy Japanese businessmen who cannot make it home for the night, often have large public bathhouses with multiple communal baths for the comfort of their customers. Staying at these capsule hotels costs only a fraction of standard tourist accommodations, and is a great way to experience two unique aspects of Japanese culture in one night. Be prepared though, as the capsules are tiny, even by Japanese standard, and one would need to endure noises throughout the night as capsule hotels are often open 24 hours and most capsule compartments do not have a proper door. Some capsule hotels do allow casual bathers to use their bathhouses, but not all of them. It is also quite hard to find capsule hotels with woman bathhouses, as capsule hotels are mainly designed for a male dominant working class. An alternative is public bathhouses, which were pretty common back in the days when private bathrooms were more a symbol of the riches. Nowadays, they can be a bit hard to find as their number has decreased substantially over the years, and they are somewhat less user-friendly for foreigners as they are mainly for local residents who don’t have their own bath.

For a more comfortable way to enjoy a Japanese bath, one can stay at a minjuku. A minjuku is a home-stay style accommodation where the guests stay at an authentic family house, and are served authentic family dinner and breakfast, and treated with an authentic Japanese bath experience. Most minjukus would have a private bath, where you get to enjoy the whole bath by yourself. On top of that, you will always be one of the first to enjoy the bath, as traditionally guests always come first, followed by the elders in the family, father, mother, and finally kids. Private baths in minjukus save you from bathing naked in front of other people.  However, the bath would be much smaller, in fact, tiny, compared to public bathhouses due to the limited spaces in most family homes.

For the most comfortable way to enjoy a Japanese bath, you can’t go beyond “onsen“, Japanese hot springs. Being in a volcanic region, Japan is dotted with onsen towns, some of the more famous ones include Hakone, Beppu and Kusatsu. The main differences between typical baths and onsen baths are: firstly, the hot water is generated naturally, full of health beneficial minerals; secondly, most onsen have both indoor and outdoor baths, which enhances the bathing experience.For budget travelers, onsen towns usually have more than their share of public bathhouses, all with naturally supplied spring water. So one can enjoy onsen freely without breaking the bank by staying in a cheap backpacker and spend your day or night at one of these bathhouses. However, for a proper onsen experience, it is strongly recommended that you should spend at least one night at an onsen resort.

At an onsen resort, your cleansing starts once you reach the entrance of the resort, where the overwhelmingly polite hotel servants take your luggage by hand, and guide you to the reception. Once you are at the reception, you are treated as a king as everyone bows and greets at your arrival. They would then show you your room, usually much larger than the typical Japanese hotel room, where you can put on your Yukuta (Japanese bathrobe) and then either have a stroll in their private garden or enjoy a bath either at their public outdoor hot springs by yourself or in a private hotspring bath with your loved ones. Dinner is usually served around 6 – 7pm, with your personal butler bringing you each course of the scrumptious seasonal banquet, ranging from fresh sashimi, top-notch steak to traditional desserts. After dinner, a relaxing evening awaits, where you can either have nice bath at the onsen again, or just stayed in your room and watch TV or read a book, all the while your comfortable futons are laid out for you for a fantastic, relaxing night sleep. This ultimate comfort, services and tranquility that you can get from an onsen resort will definitely be something that you will remember for the rest of your life!

Be it a public bath or a private bath, the Bathing Etiquette must be followed, otherwise you would at best be laughed at, and at worse offend your fellow bathers. Firstly, you must do the cleaning – the soaping and the scrubbing – outside the bath. All bathhouses or private bathrooms would have an area where you can sit down on a wooden stool and clean yourself, most likely with body wash and shampoo provided. Once you are all scrubbed, rinse yourself with either the shower or the bucket provided. Remember to make sure that you are squeaky clean. Only then, you can enter the bath. In public bathhouses, the men’s and women’s baths are separated, and you are required to enter the bath naked. Couples who would like to bath together would need to get to a private bath house. When you enter, be careful as the water can be very hot. Once you enter, just find a spot, sit down, and relax. You are allowed to bring a small towel which you can soak in the water and put it on your head, to stop the heat from leaving your body too quickly. You can also put it on your face, but there is strictly no scrubbing in the bath. No splashing or playing is allowed either. If the water is too hot for you, you can get out and get back in as many times as you like. But once you get used to it, you may be amazed by the comfort a relaxing Japanese bath can give.

No matter where you go or how you do it, a Japanese bath is a great way to relax and rejuvenate. It is a truly unique experience. So next time when you are in Japan, why not give it a try? I can guarantee that you will fall in love with the ritual and will never want to have your bath any other way ever again!

Date posted: 8th January, 2015

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