Bathing is one of the key reasons why I travel. Where ever I am in the world I always search for the best places to submerge in water- beaches to swim at, reefs to dive in, pools to lounge in and bath houses to soak in. In Japan bathing is a way of life. In very small cramped cities many homes do not have baths, instead each suburb will have a bathhouse where locals can come to soak in hot water. These baths fall into two categories- a Sento which is a communal bath-house in which hot water is heated, or a Onsen which uses hot water from hot springs. All bathing is done naked (yes naked!) with most places separating the genders. For many travellers the experience of bathing nude can be quite overwhelming and confusing.
Let’s break it down… (Now I’m going step by step through the most common practice for bathing, but the best advice I can give is to follow the locals)
Step 1: Enter the bath house. You will be given a key for a locker to put your shoes in.
Step 2- Continue into the change rooms. You will receive a second locker to place all your personal items and clothing. It’s time to strip off! Many places will give you a yakata or robe to wear if there are communal gender areas.
Step 3: Continue to further change room. At this stage you will be given two towels- usually a large bath towel and smaller hand towel. Take a few deep breaths- there is nothing to be embarrassed about. This is where the clothing really does come off. Place your robe and the large in a locker (yes we’re up to locker number 3!)
Step 4: Take the small hand towel with you into the bathing areas. Close to the entrance you will find the washing area. Most commonly the area will have small stools based around a tap, with every person having their own wash area. There will be soap, shampoo and conditioner provided.
Step 5: Wash yourself. This I found to be one of the most relaxing parts of bathing. Take the time to really lather up and clean yourself. You’ll often find that there is either a hose fixed to the tap so you can have a shower like wash, or alternatively a small wooden bowl which you can fill and pour over yourself. Wash your hair, and then rinse off. To ensure the pristine condition of the bathing waters it is vital that you remove all the soap and product from your skin.
Step 6: Wrap your small towel around your head and continue to the bathing pools. This might be one pool, or an array of pools with different temperatures. Get in slowly as the waters are usually hot. Then find a spot in the pool and relax. Note: it’s not advisable to submerge your head.
Step 7: If you have spent time in a hot pool, it is good for you to then refresh yourself with cold water. You can then either return to the hot pools or return to the change rooms.
Step 8: Return to the change rooms and collect your large towel. You’ll find benches in front of mirrors to dry yourself, dry your hair, moisturise your skin (many will provide moisturiser), and clean your face. Please remember that it is important to rehydrate after spending time in the hot pools so drink plenty of fluid.
Step 9: Return to the next change room. Collect your clothing and get dressed.
Step 10. Pay for your stay, and pick up your shoes upon your exit.
I hope the above list helps to demystify bath taking. The first time I did in Japan it was a very scary experience, but once I realised that no-one was looking at my naked body, and that everyone was there naked together with no embarrassment or judgement, I felt incredibly relieved and excited. After that bathing became a regular feature of my trip, and was the main reason I decided to return to Japan. I visited both local quiet sentos, made a trip to Hakone to bath in onsens, and went to Amusement park sentos in Tokyo and Osaka.
A few suggestions for places to try:
* Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo is a personal favourite of mine.
* LaQua in Tokyo.
* Prince Hotel Hakone -for their fabulous outdoor onsen where you can bath whilst looking at Mt Fuji.