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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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?