In Japan the main purpose of taking a bath, besides cleaning your body, is relaxation at the end of the day.
The typical Japanese bathroom consists of two rooms, an entrance room where you undress and which is equipped with a sink, and the actual bathroom, which is equipped with a shower and a deep bath tub. The toilet is almost always located in an entirely separate room.
When bathing Japanese style, you are supposed to sit on the small plastic footstool and wash your body outside the bath tub using a hand held shower or wash bowl (tipped over the body and head) first. After rinsing with water you wash yourself all over with soap and rinse off completely. Then you enter the bathtub to soak and relax only.
The bath water tends to be relatively hot for Western bathing standards. After leaving the tub, the water is usually left for the next member of the house. It is to keep the bath water clean for all members of the house that washing and rinsing is done outside of the actual bathtub.
Modern bath tubs can be programmed to be automatically filled with water of a given temperature at a given time, or to heat up the water to a preferred temperature.
In the past, many homes in Japan were not equipped with a bathtub. To fill this void, the neighbourhood sento (lit. money hot water), or public bath was a place where the locals could go to wash themselves, soak in a tub and socialize with neighbours.
These days most households have their own bath and the number of traditional sento have decreased. However, new types of public baths and bath complexes, which feature a range of different pools, saunas, fitness centres, etc. have been emerging, some of which more resemble theme parks than simple bath houses.
Some sento, typically in hot spring resort towns, utilize natural hot spring water for their baths. In this case they are considered an onsen bath. Public baths that are not supplied by hot spring water, use heated tap water instead.
Public baths (public in that anyone may use them as opposed to the private baths of ryokan and hotels which may only be open to guests) can be found throughout Japan and typically cost 200 to 2000 yen. Some, found in larger cities, are open 24 hours with special overnight rates, and can be used as alternative budget accommodation.
With the exception of some theme park style bath complexes, public baths are segregated by gender and swimsuits are not worn.
Japanese style hotels and hot springs spas usually offer a common bathing facility as well as en-suite bathrooms.
When using a sento or onsen bath:
- Take off all your clothes in the changing room and place them into a basket together with your bath towel. Coin lockers or free lockers for valuables are often available.
- Japanese baths & hot springs are enjoyed naked. Swimming suits are not allowed in most places. However, it is the custom to bring a small towel into the bathing area, with which you can enhance your privacy while outside of the water. Once you enter the bath, keep the towel out of the water.
- Before entering the bath, rinse your body with water from either a hand held shower or using a washbowl provided in the bathing area. Traditionally, just rinsing your body is considered sufficient (and many older baths do not even provide showers and soap), but fully cleaning before entering the bath is more common and better in principle. Wash while sitting on a stool facing the wall. Soap and shampoo are provided in most baths. Like in private Japanese bathrooms, make sure that no soap gets into the bath water. Tidy up your space after you finished cleaning your body.
- After washing you can enter the bath to soak and relax for a while. Note that the bath water can be very hot (typical temperatures are 40 to 44 degrees). If it feels too hot, try to enter very slowly and move as little as possible.
- After you finish soaking in an onsen bath, you may not want to rinse your body with tap water to allow the hot spring water's minerals to have full effect on your body.
The ultimate hot spring experience is spending a night at an onsen ryokan, a Japanese style inn with hot spring baths. This is not only one of the most popular holiday activities among the Japanese, but is also highly recommended to any foreign visitor of Japan.
Onsen ryokan are found in various sizes in hot spring resorts across Japan. A typical onsen ryokan visit starts with a bath before dinner. Many guests like to take another bath before sleeping and before breakfast in the next morning.
You do not need to stay overnight at a ryokan in order to enjoy its baths. Many ryokan open their baths to the general public, typically during daytime only and against an admission fee of a few hundred yen. Besides ryokan, most hot spring resorts also have some public bath houses with hot spring water.
There are many types of hot springs to enjoy. The conventional hot spring is a hot water bath. Depending on the spring, different minerals are dissolved in the water, giving it different health benefits, colours and smells. Many hot springs contain sulphur and have an according odour.
Hot spring water baths come indoors, outdoors and in many different sizes. Outdoor baths are called rotenburo. While some baths are wooden or stone tubs, others are built to resemble or are actually natural hot spring pools. Some outdoor baths are spectacularly situated in the mountains, valleys or along rivers, lake or sea shores.
Besides conventional hot water tubs, a popular feature of larger baths are waterfalls, which comfortably massage your shoulders if you sit below them. Other bath types include sand baths, where bathers are buried in naturally heated sand, mud baths and steam rooms.
Ashiyu are shallow hot spring pools for bathing just your feet. They are found in the streets of many hot spring resorts and can be used free of charge.
Increasing in number are modern hot spring complexes, which offer a range of baths, massage services, saunas and sometimes conventional swimming pools, water slides, etc. In Tokyo, where there is a shortage of natural hot spring water on the surface, some new hot spring complexes are retrieving their water from a depth of more than a kilometre below sea level.