To me, Japanese baths are nothing short of nirvana. By knowing about the 3 types of Japanese baths—onsen, sento and ofuro—you can bring more Zen into your life, even if you can’t get to Japan.
There are three main types of Japanese baths: onsen or a communal bath that draws water from a natural mineral-filled hot spring, sento or a communal bath that does not draw water from hot spring, and ofuro, which is a Japanese soaking tub for an individual or small family.
When I visited Japan, I visited a modern Japanese bath house. I took several Japanese-style baths on my trip. These were nothing like soaking in my tub at home. But since returning from Japan, I’ve incorporated some techniques and products I discovered into my bathing ritual here in Texas.
3 Types of Japanese Baths: Onsen, Sento, and Ofuro
|Public or Private||Private and Public||Public||Private|
|Location||Rural areas near volcanoes; private onsen often located in traditional Japanese inns called ryokan||Urban and suburban community centers||Family homes|
|Who Can Use||Anyone of any age, except some ban people with tattoos||Anyone of any age, except some ban people with tattoos||Family and friends|
|Type of Water||Hot springs mineral water||Municipal tap water||Tap water from home|
|Price||Private (1000 Yen +)|
Public (350-1000 Yen)
When I was in Japan with my husband and son, it was a freezing cold March, with an average temperature of about 48 degrees Fahrenheit, and just before cherry blossom season. I bought a special red down jacket with a black fur-lined hood for the trip.
Despite the cold—which I detest—I loved, loved, loved Japan! And my favorite most memorable times? Getting nice and steamy warm in the modern Japanese bath house, of course. In this post, I’m going to talk about the similarities and differences between onsen, sento and ofuro.
Onsen: Japanese Baths in Hot Springs
An onsen is a communal bath that draws its water from mineral-rich, natural hot springs. There are onsen across Japan. However, since they are heated geothermally by the energy from active volcanoes, there are more onsen in rural areas.
There are private onsen at hotels and traditional Japanese inns called ryokans, as well as public onsen run by the local district (called prefecture). You’ll have no trouble finding onsen in Japan, as there are more than 3,000 hot springs and more than 22,000 onsen resorts throughout the country.
To be classified as an onsen, the bath must draw water from a hot spring that contains at least one of 19 different healing minerals. An onsen that draws from a hot spring full of sulfur is said to help people with arthritis and skin problems. An onsen rich in iron will restore energy in bathers suffering from anemia.
Water temperature at onsen is at least 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many Traditional Japanese Inns Have Onsen
My family went to Yamaguchi, where my husband has a friend from business school, and we stayed in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn. The ryokan called Umenoya that had an onsen.
Like a dummy, I didn’t read anything about Japanese baths in advance, so I had no idea about the etiquette for Japanese baths. (I just heard the word “bath,” tried to wiggle my numb-from-the-cold toes, and said, “Take me to the hot water. Now!”) And since I didn’t know anything about hot springs and healing minerals, I didn’t ask about which specific minerals were in this onsen.
There were separate baths for men and women. The hotel gave us bathing robes called yukata and wooden sandals geta to wear into the locker room. They also gave me a big towel and a small towel.
Learning Onsen Etiquette the Hard Way
I left my wallet and other things up in the room at the traditional Japanese inn. Then I went into the women’s locker room and put my robe and slippers and put them into a locker. Then I wrapped the big towel around me and went through the door into the onsen.
This onsen was partly inside and partly outside. It was cold, so I planned to stay indoors. I dropped my towel on the side of the bath, which looked like a shallow swimming pool, though I knew it was filled with mineral water that would be nourishing. As soon as I got into the water, I dunked my head. When I popped out, I found a gaggle of Japanese women helpfully pointing me to the shower stalls that were visible from the onsen.
So long story short, here’s what I learned the hard way about Japanese bath house etiquette:
Whether you’re at a public or private onsen, or at a sento, the rules are generally these:
1. Get naked before entering the Japanese bath.
A guiding principle of the Japanese bathing experience is “Hadaka no tsukiai” which translates to “naked friendship.” Most Japanese bath houses require nudity. The philosophy of naked friendship says that in the bathhouse, everyone is equal. At the Japanese baths, everyone is naked and the same.
Personally, it’s really strange for me to imagine bathing with people I meet in the business world. But then again, there’s something quite refreshing about the idea of a place where all social hierarchies evaporate like dewdrops on a hot day.
2. Rinse off first in the shower.
Usually, you’ll find several shower stalls beside the Japanese bath. These are for washing yourself before you get into the onsen or sento. This practice of washing off thoroughly before entering the onsen is called kaisei-yu. It’s one of the rules of Japanese bathing that you definitely don’t want to violate.
3. Sit when showering.
Each shower station has a little wooden stool. You are meant to sit on the stool as you shower off with soap.
4. Don’t squirt your neighbor.
Part of the reason you sit is so that you don’t squirt your neighbor with the handheld showerhead. But if you’re not used to maneuvering with a handheld, you’ll need to be careful. (Take it from me!)
5. Leave your shower station in order.
Just as the Japanese are clean and neat, you don’t leave one part of the bath house for another without cleaning up after yourself. You can wipe down the stool with your towel and make sure the shower is perfectly prepared for the next visitor. You can leave a basket with your shampoo and other products nearby for washing yourself again when you get out.
6. Put a small towel on your head in the bath.
Put your washcloth on your head when you go into the bath. That’s a convenient place to put it, so that it doesn’t get mixed up with anyone else’s washcloth. This is hygienic and you’ll be washing your hair later, anyway.
7. Don’t use shampoo or soap in the bath.
The Japanese bath is not the same as an American bath–you won’t be using any soap or shampoo or other bath products here. Those are for the shower. The bath is for relaxation and communion with other people and nature.
8. Keep your head out of the bathwater.
It’s considered impolite and unhygienic to dunk your head in the Japanese bath so don’t even think about it.
9. Only engage in quiet conversations.
Do your part to help create an atomosphere of tranquility. It’s fine to chat with friends as long as you’re respectful of others and relatively quiet.
10. Do not take photos or videos.
Though you may be tempted to take photos of the bathhouse itself (and not of other people), don’t do it. It’s considered an invasion of privacy just to have a camera out. It’s a big no-no.
Bathing at a Public Onsen
There are some differences when you take a Japanese bath at a public onsen vs at a private onsen inside a ryokan. This is a great video that shows the public onsen:
When you are staying at a ryokan, usually the use of the onsen is included in the price. But when you visit a public Japanese onsen, you will pay a stand-alone price. This can be anywhere from 350-1000 yen, depending upon the swankiness of the facility and the location.
In the public onsen, you will usually enter and remove your shoes immediately, placing them in a small locker. (Japanese do not welcome dirty shoes on clean floors. You find yourself taking your shoes off all the time and putting on a clean pair of slippers.) You’ll take the key from the locker to a counter, where you pay the fee to enter the facility.
Use a Japanese Bath Bucket to Rinse Off
Some of the public onsen have showers for washing off before you bathe. But others have what look like small tubs of water with washing buckets and spoons. If you are at an onsen with the washing buckets, what you do is scoop up some of the onsen water with the spoon and let it fall over your body to rinse yourself off. Do this over and over, covering every body part.
Sento: Affordable Japanese Baths
Sento were originally created so that people who did not have a bath in their homes could still have a place to relax and get clean. However, today, sento are used by everyone.
Sento Are Low-Cost
The cost remains lower than at the onsen, so that anyone who needs to can use the sento every day.
In older parts of the cities, there are still homes that do not have bathtubs.
The city or town sets the entry fee for the sento, so for example if you’re in Tokyo, the fee at every sento will be the same. Depending on the prefecture, you can expect to pay 350-470 yen. This is different from the onsen, where the individual proprietors set the rate. At many sento, you’ll be able to purchase shampoo and body soap to use after your bath.
Sento Use Tap Water
Unlike the onsen, which you’re more likely to find in rural areas near active volcanoes, the sento can be built anywhere since they do not rely on natural springs. Instead, the sento use tap water and are usually located centrally in a city or town. (That said, recently onsen have opened up in Tokyo, because the owners are drilling deep into the earth for natural water.)
At sento what you’ll find is a multitude of different baths that look like small swimming pools, each offering something unique to bathers. One might be carbonated water to smooth the skin, and another might have milk to soften it.
You’re likely to find baths with varying temperatures at the sento as well: a cold bath, warm bath, and a scalding hot bath.
Gender Rules for the Sento
Like the onsen, most Japanese sento have separate facilities for men and women. Men and women enter through a separate doorway marked by a blue curtain for men and a red curtain for women. Some bath houses have only one set of tubs, and are open for men and women at different hours.
Once you enter the doorway to the locker-room, you’ll need to remove all clothing, as you’ll most likely be prohibited from wearing a bathing suit. That’s right: It’s time to get completely naked!
Sometimes, a bath house will have an outdoor bath for both men and women. Usually at these, you’re required to wear a bathing suit.
(Almost) Everyone is Welcome at Japanese Baths
Nearly everyone is welcome at the Japanese baths, including young children. However, one exception at some facilities is people with tattoos. The reason is that tattoos are associated with belonging to the Japanese mafia.
So if you’ve got tattoos and you do want to soak, you’ll need to check about the rules. If your tattoo is small enough, you could cover it up with a bandage. But better yet, you can check with the particular bath house you want to visit about its rules. Here is a list of tattoo-friendly bath houses in Tokyo.
Ofuro: Private Japanese Baths
Ofuro is a Japanese soaking tub that you’ll find in a home, apartment, or ryokan. Some bath houses will also have a few ofuro available to use in addition to other types of tubs.
And trust me on this, you can most definitely find an amazing ofuro in a Buddhist temple. I say temple, because that’s where I took my first bath in an ofuro, and it basically saved my life.
Long story, but on our trip to Japan, my family ascended the mountain called Koyasan. Totally an incredible place to go, it is the center for Buddhism in Japan, and has more than 50 active temples. To support running these ancient buildings, many of them offer rooms to tourists.
What I didn’t know when I agreed to go was that the monasteries are not heated! No joke: I wore so many layers under and over my kimono in the monastery that the monks laughed at me wherever I went. I was basically the entertainment.
It was so cold up on that mountain, but there were two things that saved me: 1) A very kind (and laughing) monk delivered me a giant hot water bottle to sleep with; and 2) The ofuro in the monastery.
What is an ofuro?
The traditional ofuro is made of Japanese cedar wood. It is typically square-shaped or round like a bucket. The ofuro contains steaming water up to the bathers’ necks. The ofuro is for relaxation and warmth, not for cleaning one’s body. Typically these are heated to 103-107 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some say that the western-style hot tub took inspiration from the ofuro.
You’ll find a shower beside it, because like with the communal Japanese baths, you wash off before getting in. However, you’ll never find a toilet in the same room as ofuro like you have in western homes.
Man, does this Japanese bathtub deliver the goods! It warmed me up so thoroughly, that after I got out and put on my long underwear and down jacket and winter boots, I even walked through the old cemetery on the mountaintop all the way to the famous temple at the end.
Like in an onsen or sento, the rules for bathing in the ofuro in a private home, include rinsing off before entering the tub, keeping a towel on your head and refraining from using soap and shampoo. However, in addition, there are two rules of etiquette unique to the ofuro:
- Allow all family members to use the tub before draining the water.
- When you finish bathing, cover the tub after use to retain the heat.
How many people use an ofuro at once?
Unlike the sento or onsen, usually only a few people use the ofuro at the same time. Often parents and children will sit in ofuro together each day, as it’s seen as a healthy ritual to bond the family together.
In many homes in Japan, after it’s used for bathing, the greywater from the bath will be recycled to wash clothes. Read my post about how to recycle bath water to learn much more about this eco-friendly practice that is practiced by many Japanese families.
What is a modern-day ofuro made of?
These days you can find ofuro made from acrylic and fiberglass. There are also luxury ofuro. The absolutely stunning 45″ hammered copper ofuro pictured above is available on houzz. It’s made from 100% recyclable materials and combines beauty with functionality.
A modern, upscale ofuro comes with a control panel that is on a nearby wall. You’ll find buttons to set the water temperature, reheat the water when it falls below a certain temperature, or a timer so that the bath will be nice and hot for you when you get home from work or a day of shopping.
Visit a Japanese Bath House
If you’re now desperate to get to a Japanese bath house, but don’t think you have the funds for the flight to Japan, I have two recommendations:
Get a Cheap Flight to Japan
You might be surprised at how cheaply you can get to Japan.
Sign up for Scott’s Cheap Flights. You’ll pay $49 for a premium membership for the year and get notified of amazing deals which often include major US cities direct to Tokyo. Although you need to be prepared to jump on a deal at a moment’s notice, you can make the reservation for many months in the future and fly a reputable airline.
Visit a Local Japanese Bath House
However, if that still seems out of reach, you can find Japanese bath houses all over the US and Europe. For example, if you’re in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you can try an authentic ofuro experience for $60/90 minutes at the totally amazing resort Ten Thousand Waves.
Or what about this ryokan with onsen in rural Virginia?
If you live in Texas or New York, or will be passing through any time soon, don’t miss Spa Castle! This is an Asian fusion bath house experience that is so much fun—and incredibly relaxing, too! Check out the review of my visit to Spa Castle Texas.
Just put “your location + onsen” and do a Google search. If that comes up short, try “your location + sento.” You should be able to land yourself a one-of-a-kind Japanese bathing experience at a decent price, not too far from home.
Enjoy Japanese Baths at Home
If you can’t get to a Japanese bath house, why not bring the Japanese bath house to you?! Here are 3 great ways to do it:
1. Bring Nature into Your Bathroom
At the onsen, I could see the beautiful trees outside as I bathed. Bathing in Japan reminded me how calming and zen-like a little nature can be. One of our tiny bathrooms doesn’t have any windows, but that didn’t stop me from adding a touch of the outdoors. I got a few plants that can do well without natural light. When I look at them from the bathtub, I naturally breathe more deeply.
The other way I bring nature to the bathroom is by using natural products made of materials found in Japan, like bamboo and teak. Consider a luxury bamboo bath caddy (shown above), a teak bath mat or teak shower stool. All of these touches definitely will make you feel more zen-like when you bathe. (Here are my recommended wood bathroom accessories to create a Zen-feel in your home.)
2. Bathe in Epsom Salts and Essential Oils
Turn your bathtub into a hot spring, complete with nourishing scents and salts. Epsom salts are made of minerals magnesium and sulfate. Anecdotal evidence says that soaking in these salts can relieve stress, improve sleep, and decrease muscle tension. Add some essential oils to your tub as well to really amp up the healing power. And there you go, a hot springs bath right in your own home.
See this post on exactly how to mix up an Epsom salt bath with essential oils. The Zen is coming to you soon!
3. Put on a Yukata After Your Bath
A yukata is a lightweight kimono. Unlike other types of Japanese kimono, the yukata is more informal and meant to be worn indoors. Put one on as you’re lazily lounging after your bath. And when you’re ready to head out, why not wear a kimono robe—an east meets west fashion statement.
Learn all about kimono vs bathrobe and find the yukata for you.
Japanese Baths Can Change Your Life
If you’re looking for more Zen and less stress, do what you can to bring the spirit of the onsen, sento or ofuro into your home. Better yet, visit a traditional or modern Japanese bath house. It’s an experience that just might influence how you live the rest of your life.
This post was updated March 5, 2021