Japanese Bathing Culture

8 Things to Know About Japanese Bathing Culture

You’ve probably heard of Japanese bathing culture. Japan truly is famous for its many public bathhouses and hot springs. But what is the difference between an onsen and a sento? Why do the Japanese like bathing so much? And what is the right etiquette? Here are 8 things to know about Japanese bathing culture.

Table of Contents

1. The History of the Japanese Bathing Culture

Japanese Onsen

The Japanese bathing culture has a long history. I bet people have been washing their bodies there forever but one day they must have realised that the hot water coming from volcanos could be used to bathe in it. The start of bathing culture as we know it started in the Nara period from AD 710 to 794. Back then, baths were primarily found at temples and access was only granted to priests and sick people. A few years later the priests probably noticed that they could make a shit tone of money by letting in more people into their baths. 1266 was when the first commercial bathhouse was mentioned. These however didn’t look anything like today’s bathhouses.

Bathhouses which included “pools” as we know them today started appearing in the Edo periods (1603-1867). They called those bathhouses “yuya” which literally translates to “hot water shop”. Men and women used to bathe together and naked. Logically, after closing hours some started offering “special services” which I won’t further elaborate on here.

This led to the Tokugawa shogunate banning mixed bathing, but this ruling was soon relaxed again. However, once Commodore Perry arrived in Japan, he was shocked about the concept of men and women being naked together in hot water, so Japan banned mixed bathing again.

Then technology got better and better and baths started to look more like modern bathhouses. After WWII bathhouses gained some importance but they lost it again around the 1970s as modern houses now had their own baths.

2. Why Do the Japanese Like Bathing so Much?

There are many reasons why Japanese people like bathing so much. According to a survey questioning over 1000 young Japanese men and women why they like bathing so much found that the most popular reason why people take a bath is to recover from their workday. The second most popular reason was that bathing helps them relax and others were that bathing simply is a habit. And 26.2% of people in their twenties stated that they take baths for health reasons.

I would also say that bathing has a long tradition in Japan and showers simply weren’t that common. So that would be another factor why the Japanese like bathing so much.

3. The Different Types of Japanese Bathhouses

In Japan, there are two main types of bathhouses: onsen and sento. The main difference between them is that in an onsen they use water coming from a hot spring and in a sento it’s just heated up tap-water. Traditionally Japanese people used to go to public baths because they didn’t have their own bathtubs at home. For many people, the baths also were a place to meet and chat with others and some enjoyed going there because of how much space they offered. However, nowadays the number of communal bathhouses is decreasing due to the fact that modern homes now come with their own baths.

3.1 Sentō

One type of bathhouse is called Sentō 銭湯. It’s basically a communal bath that uses tap-water to fill it’s “pools”. Probably the only thing special about those is that you bathe naked in them.

The interior often doesn’t look special either. There’s a lobby to pay the entrance fee and then there often are two doorways, one for men (indicated with 男) and one for women (indicated with 女). Inside you’ll find a locker room, often equipped with mirrors and sometimes with other things like toothbrushes, combs, etc. But this depends on how luxurious the sentō is. Then comes the main bathing area, with showers to clean yourself before entering the bath and the pool itself – nothing too special.

Nowadays there are also some really big sentos that act more like a spa. In addition to bathing areas, they can offer saunas, massages, and many more things.

3.2 Onsen

Japanese bathing culture: open-air hot spring in Japan

While sento mainly stands for communal bathhouses that use tap-water for their pools, onsen can be much more. In Japanese onsen 温泉 literally means hot spring. So, it should be obvious that the water used in an onsen therefore comes from a hot spring. This also means that you can only find a real onsen, near volcanos. However, when I look at Japan, I realise that Japan is pretty much covered in those…

So finding an onsen shouldn’t be too hard. But unlike sento, the definition of an onsen is much broader. Basically every hole that you fill with hot spring water can be an onsen. For example, together with the same host family that later kicked me out, I went to an open-air onsen, somewhere high up in the mountains (the one in the picture). There were many different smaller “pools” filled with the mineral-rich hot spring water and next to those there were some small huts take off your clothes. Due to the volcanic activity, the smell of sulfur was everywhere. Here’s a link to said onsen.

The place where you’re most likely to see an onsen is a ryokans (traditional Japanese inn). Most ryokans simply pump water from a hot spring into a big communal “pool” like the one in the picture in chapter 3.1. However other more high-end ryokans will  often decorate the “pool” and make it look very natural.

Japanese

4. Do Men and Women Bathe Together in Japan?

No, nowadays in Japanese baths men and women are separated. However, traditionally that wasn’t the case. Before the Meiji restoration, where Japan opened itself up to the West, Japanese men and women were allowed and also used to bathe together. Mixed bathing wasn’t seen as sexual but rather normal.

Today, there are still some bathhouses in Japan that offer mixed bathing, but they are mostly found in rural areas. And most of those probably require visitors to wear swimsuits.

Japanese Bathing Culture: entrance to an onsen

5. Do Families Bathe Together in Japan?

In Japan men and women aren’t allowed to bathe together. But this rule doesn’t apply to children. A small child can go in either the men’s or women’s bath, no matter of its sex. However, there’s no general rule, I’d say that every onsen handles this differently.

6. Japanese Bathing Culture Nowadays

I have said earlier that communal bathhouses like the sento are on the decline. But that doesn’t mean that the Japanese don’t bathe anymore. I bet the Japanese bath more nowadays than they used to. That’s because nowaday almost every house has it’s own bathtub which allows people to take a bath whenever they want to. But do they take a bath every day?

6.1 Do the Japanese Take a Bath Every Day?

I have said earlier that communal bathhouses like the sento are on the decline. But that doesn’t mean that the Japanese don’t bathe anymore. I bet the Japanese bath more nowadays than they used to. That’s because nowaday almost every house has it’s own bathtub which allows people to take a bath whenever they want to. But do they take a bath every day?

Do the Japanese Take a Bath Every Day?

The answer to this question strongly depends on the season. According to a survey conducted on about 500 Japanese men and women aged between 15 and 59, 83.2% of Japanese people prefer taking a bath every day and only, 16.8% prefer taking a shower. However, these numbers are only true for winter. In summer, on the other hand, the ratio between people taking a bath and people taking a shower is 1:1.

These numbers make a lot of sense because winter in Japan can be very cold and many houses lack isolation and central heating. This makes a hot bath incredibly appealing. Japanese summers on the other end can become ridiculously hot and humid. That should explain why in summer fewer people take a hot bath.

7. Japanese Bathing Etiquette

Manners are incredibly important in Japan because people there value peace and order. This also holds true for Japanese bathhouses, where there are many things you could do wrong.

  • Don’t make too much noise.
  • Wash your body thoroughly before entering the bathtub.
  • Also, rinse off the chairs and buckets you used to clean yourself.
  • Tattoos are forbidden in most Onsen and Sento, so if you have any try to cover them up or ask at the reception whether tattoos are allowed or not
  • Don’t let your towel touch the water, as it may have soap or other stuff on it that could make the water in the bathtub dirty.

In the end, people won’t hate you if you get any of these rules wrong. Just use common sense, and do as the locals do. In case you’re unsure what to do you can ask someone around you. The Japanese are always very helpful.

8. Next-Level Bathing Culture

Would Japan be the place it is, weren’t there so many weird things? Obviously not. And bathing isn’t any different in that aspect. So,hHere are three weird types of Japanese baths.

8.1 This Onsen Will Shock You - Literally

Somehow Japan never fails to amaze me. A few years ago in the bubble era, some weird guy must have had too much white powder and thought: “How about we send an electric current through a pool and then sit in there?” And that must be how the denkiburo came to be.

Appearantly, there seem to be some health benefits, like reducing the size of tumors, relieving pain and some others. However, there’s not much scientific evidence to prove any of those.

So, until real evidence supporting the denkiburo comes up, Imma stay the hell out of there.

8.2 The Washing Machine for Human Beings

washing machine for human beings (Expo '70 Osaka)

Do you think that applying shampoo all by yourself is too demanding? Do you think that holding a shower brush is too much work to do? Well, then let me introduce to you the washing machine for humans. It takes Japanese bathing culture to a whole other level.

This piece of modern hardware was introduced at the Expo ’70 in Osaka. The pamphlet described it like this:

The ultrasonic bath at the Sanyo Pavilion was the full-automatic bath where people can sit in the capsule not only to clean the skin but to maintain both health and beauty, using massage balls and supersonic waves. Currently the same technology is applied to the baths for long-term nursing.

For inexplicable reasons the washing machine for human beings never took off and in 2020 people still clean their bodies using primitive tools like their hands, brushes or wash cloths…

8.3 Who Even Needs Water?

When I was staying in the city of Beppu, I came across a thing called sunamushionsen 砂むし温泉, or in English: a sand onsen. There you don’t bathe in hot water but in hot sand. Also, you have to wear a yukata so that the women working there don’t see what you look like down there. I wouldn’t recommend that you eat anything heavy before going to a sand onsen because the sand on you’re stomach will quickly feel very heavy. From my experience, I can say that it is fun, but only for a couple of minutes. The sand will quickly make you feel trapped. Nevertheless is going to a sand onsen a fun experience that everyone should do given the opportunity.

Here’s a video that shows what going to a sand onsen is like:

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading this post about 8 things to Know About Japanese Bathing Culture. This is my first post after a long break. I’ve been quite busy and will be for a couple more months. So, if you do not want to miss any new posts, I recommend you subscribe to my newsletter!

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