Bathing in Japan

japan monkey onsen
I try not to make sweeping generalizations – particularly when it comes to cultures that I may take part in but am not strictly part of – but I think it’d be pretty fair to say that Japan really likes its baths. My students’ reactions when I told them that in New Zealand, most people tended to shower rather than bathe every day (and in the morning no less!), their reaction was a unanimous “WHAAAAT?” (Well, okay, it was actually “EEEEEHHH?”, but the sentiment was roughly the same.)

ehhhhh
As you can probably imagine, this bathing culture has been around in Japan for a fairly long time. The origins of the Japanese public bathhouse, or sentō, can actually be traced to Buddhist temples in India, from which the idea spread to China and then finally to Japan sometime during the Nara period (AD 710-794). At this time in Japan, bathing had a distinctively religious connotation and so most baths were found in temples, where they were initially used only by priests. Sick people seeking both physical and spiritual healing gradually gained access as well (even today it’s believed that certain types of bath water can be used to treat the likes of skin diseases, diabetes, constipation, menstrual disorders, etc.), although it was a long while before bathhouses went full-on commercial.

In fact, the first written mention of the term ‘sento’ did not appear until 1266 in the Kamakura period. It had come into common usage by the time the Edo period rolled around though, and since the majority of ordinary citizens didn’t have access to their own baths at home, communal bathhouses continued to increase until the second half of the twentieth century. (Incidentally, sento differ from onsen in that the former use baths filled with heated tap water while the latter use naturally hot water from geothermal springs. Open-air onsen are referred to as rotenburo. The oldest onsen in Japan is Dogo in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, which is not a rotenburo but was used as a model for the one in Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. Yes, my prefecture is awesome.)

dogo onsen
Communal mixed-sex bathing was still the norm up until the mid-1800s in the Meiji period, when there was a significant increase of Western influence on Japan. Single-sex bathing steadily became the established custom after this point, and public mixed-sex bathing facilities that don’t require some kind of swimsuit are today very few and far between (and frequented by aged locals rather than tourists). Children are allowed to join a parent of the opposite sex, but there’s an accepted age limit – in Tokyo for example, that limit for either gender is 10.

Private baths in the family home however are a different story, where the custom of whole families bathing together is still considered by many to be an integral part of family bonding. Traditionally, houses with smaller tubs are used one by one in order of seniority (either an automatic heater or a special lid is used to keep the water hot), but it’s not terribly uncommon for family members to bathe together, especially while children are still young. That said, it’s not unacceptable for children to continue to bathe with their parents as they grow older – the general feeling being that the experience helps to build better relationships between family members, tying into the rather broad concept of ‘skinship’. In Anime Exlosion!, Patrick Drazen notes that “many Japanese girls bathe with their dads until puberty, while boys and father may continue sharing the tub for a lifetime” (p. 53), and this is backed up by a recent survey in which over ten percent of participating women said that they still bathed with their fathers up until junior high school, and just under that number during high school.

On that note, although most Japanese homes may be considered pretty small by Western standards, nearly every single household still dedicates a whole room to the bath itself. The toilet is in a completely separate room (as is usually the basin), and so bathing is a very regulated and almost ritualistic affair. Absolutely no soap is used in the tub – people sit on a small plastic stool and wash themselves thoroughly first, taking care to make sure any shampoo or soap suds are showered off before stepping into the bath. Long hair is always tied back so that it doesn’t touch the water, and the face stays above the water as well. In theory, the water should stay clean enough that not only can every member of the family use it in succession, but that it can also be used to wash their clothes the next day. And yes, this is sometimes the case – some, though not all households, have the used bath water siphoned off into the washing machine before it’s finally drained away.

japan house bath
Much the same rules regarding hygiene apply for public sento and onsen, where people are expected to make sure they’re as clean as possible before bathing. Customers often bring their own body products to use (and it’s not unusual to see them doing things like cleaning their teeth and, for women, shaving their legs as well), but even the cheapest and most rural of bathhouses usually supply at least shampoo and soap for anyone to use freely. While it sometimes takes a little mental adjustment for foreigners to get used to the idea of bathing with a bunch of strangers, rest assured that staring is considered impolite, so people outside of groups of friends and families tend to mind their own business. For the more modest of customers, small thin towels can be used for a little cover while walking between the showers and the baths. These aren’t compulsory, but people who do choose to use them aren’t supposed to dip them into the bath water, instead folding them up and placing them on top of the head during their soak.

There’s already a wealth of articles scattered across the internet on Japanese bathing etiquette (take a look at Buri-chan’s article for an introduction to Faux Pas Man), so I won’t delve much further into that particular topic. What I will briefly mention is the issue of tattoos. Currently, around half of public onsen in Japan ban anyone from bathing if they have a tattoo, the official reason being that it keeps out members of the yakuza and other crime gangs who traditionally tattoo much of their bodies. From personal experience though (I have two small tattoos myself), some people also seem to associate tattoos with being in some way unclean. The good news is that tattoo-friendly sento and onsen do exist – particularly if a tattoo is small enough to be covered up with a strip of sports tape or plaster – and as the number of tattooed visitors increase, so does the number of bathhouses loosening the regulations. As a general rule of thumb, the more commercial and upscale the facilities, the more likely it is for tattoos to be banned. Rural bathhouses with fewer customers are less likely to mention anything explicitly and more likely to just look the other way.

onsen
For further reading about sento, onsen, and the culture of bathing in Japan, my personal recommendation would be Scott Clark’s Japan, A View from the Bath. Though published back in 1994, it’s still a trusty and very interesting read.

Question of the post: For those who’ve lived/visited Japan, have your own sento and onsen experiences been largely positive or negative? For those who haven’t, do you think you’d be comfortable enough to experience it for yourself given the chance?

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20 thoughts on “Bathing in Japan

  1. Don’t for a second think that daughters bathing with fAthers is some kind of innocent bonding. Incest happen in Japan (I know) and reporting of molestation is discouraged (support mechanisms non-existent). The is such romanticism around exotic Japan that foreigners are shocked when I say that child erotica is normalized though subtle and overt means. A UN report on this matter is posted on my blog under the side page “Dear Japan.” Please spread the word that There is a great deal of exploitation and commodification going on.

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    • I think this really isn’t the place for this comment. I’m not saying that incest in Japan doesn’t exist (sadly, pretty sure it exists everywhere in the world), but I sometimes bathed with my own family members when I was younger, my father included, and I assure you there was no incest involved. This is a post about bathing culture in Japan, period – not incest or child erotica.

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  2. I’d be really interested in experiencing an actual Japanese onsen, prefably one with a hotel/dinner package included. The closest I’ve ever experienced one was a brief hot springs stop in Taiwan – you had to wear swimsuits, and it was a pretty small rotenburo. The waters were amazing though – I swear my skin actually looked fairer after getting out! (Must be the detox effect.)
    Does the Dogo Onsen you mention have a connecting hotel?

    But sentos must be quite rare today, given most houses in Japan should have their own personal baths.

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    • Dogo doesn’t have a hotel in that same building but there are several surrounding hotels within a one or two-minute walk – some small and reasonably cheap, some really fancy and expensive. Most try to go for a traditional Japanese vibe given the area.

      Sento aren’t particularly rare. There are certainly less of them than there once were because most private homes do indeed have their own baths these days, but not all of them do – especially places that are more like dorms (or just really tiny apartment-style buildings) than proper houses. Also bathing is still seen as a pretty important method of socialising by some, especially the older generation, and sento also tend to be a bit cheaper than onsen.

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  3. First of all, sorry for not commenting much over here lately–I’ve been reading most entries while chilling at home, but I’ve been too lazy to comment, and have mostly just been placidly enjoying your clever ways of wording everything while I just want to let my brain relax. As far as the entries that introduce daily aspects of Japanese culture are concerned, this is just as good as always–and I just want to add that I’ve heard rumors of the people in charge of tourism in Tokyo trying to put pressure on onsen facilities around the country to relax their rules about tattoos. This is part of their push to try to get the country ready for the trickle down of foreign tourists they anticipate surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

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    • No problem, I’m often just happy to read your entries while relaxing at home myself. 🙂

      Yeah, I’ve heard that too. I don’t know if it was this article or not, but here’s the first one that I saw concerning a (possible) change: http://en.rocketnews24.com/2016/04/01/japanese-government-encouraging-hot-springs-to-ease-tattoo-restrictions/

      I’m fully encouraging of such a change, but kind of bummed that it’d probably only mean a change for tourists and other foreigners rather than for Japanese people. Tatttoos have been growing more popular here as well as abroad, so I feel that the only-yakuza-have-tattoos mentality is pretty outdated. (Besides, how would onsen workers be able to tell the difference between a Japanese person with a tattoo and a foreigner of Japanese or Asian descent with a tattoo who can speak passable Japanese? I’m sure there are plenty out there.)

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  4. I spent roughly a month working on a farm in Hokkaido as part of a service trip and absolutely everyone in our group ended up loving the onsen by the end of our stay. It only took one time to get used to the whole “public nudity” thing, after which we were always excited to go take baths with strangers. Though it also helped that it was after a day of farm labor, so having the time to relax and unwind was even more valuable.

    So glad to see someone writing about the importance of bathing in Japan. I’ve been thinking about this myself recently, since I touched on it in the onsen episode of Phantom World when I was hateblogging that, but it’s also stood out to me how every episode of Hidamari Sketch ends with a character (usually Yuno) bathing. It stood out to me because, while there’s that bit of nudity every episode, it’s very casual and never sexual. It’s used to set a scene and give the character and audience some time to reflect and to relax. So I figured that, even outside of onsens, bathing must be a big part of the culture. Happy to hear someone talk about that a bit more in-depth.

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    • That must have been quite an experience! And I think a lot of foreigners think much the same way when they come to Japan and try out an onsen for the first time – many of us just aren’t used to the idea of being naked in a room full of strangers, but it’s funny how quickly you can get accustomed to it. 🙂

      I never watched Phantom World but one of my anime pet peeves is when a bathing scene is turned into something weirdly sexual. Of course, nudity in an onsen or sento situation has always struck me as being very casual and not sexual in the least, so I enjoy when anime portrays that more faithfully.

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  5. Wow. This entire article is just really interesting. I honestly never understood bath scenes in anime before, but I kinda get it now. It’s interesting how much bathing is an integral part of the culture. I do have to wonder though, are you required to be entirely nude when in the baths? Public baths as well? Are there baths they delegate to foreigners who are less comfortable with bathing in front of strangers or not? 🙂

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    • If it’s a regular public onsen or sento then yes, bathers are required to be completely nude. Remember, the water is supposed to remain completely clean, so wearing any kind of clothing into the bath is out. There are a few onsens where people wear bathing suits, but that’s usually only because it’s a large outdoor-only one where men and women bathe together – they basically feel more like pools than baths even if actual swimming isn’t the purpose.

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  6. Oh! Is that the one we went to? I didn’t realise it was the oldest in Japan!

    As you know I don’t have a lot of issues with public nudity and my only concerns with my first onsen visit was being unsure of where to sit, etc. I am not sure how I would go with mixed bathing, but then I think like many things it is something you get used to over time.

    I am so jealous that you get to go regularly. I do love the onsen.

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    • Yup, the one we went to in Matsuyama is indeed said to be the oldest in Japan! It’s probably one of the most well-known things about Shikoku in terms of general tourism, at least by Japanese people.

      Nude mixed bathing is no longer common practice at all for the majority of Japanese, and it’s actually illegal in some places like Tokyo. Those places that are around aren’t frequented by foreigners at all, I imagine – they’d be far too rural and only used by wizened old locals.

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