To me, Japanese baths are nothing short of nirvana. Perhaps this is because the Japanese honor the power of water in nature. An island nation that experiences typhoons and tsunamis couldn’t do anything less.
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
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.
It’s important to distinguish between the various types of bathing experiences because each requires knowledge of slightly different bathing etiquette. In this post, we are going to talk about onsen, sento and ofuro. The first two are communal Japanese baths, while ofuro is a bathtub commonly used in a private home.
Naked Friendship in the Japanese Bath House
A guiding principles 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.
Gender Rules at the Japanese Bath House
Most Japanese bath houses 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.
That’s a lot to get your head around, but worth reading twice.
Japanese Bath House Etiquette
Whether you’re at a public or private onsen, or at a sento, the rules are generally these:
Who Can Use the 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.
First Type of Japanese Bath: Onsen or Hot Spring
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. Now I just took off 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. Here’s what I learned:
5 Rules of the Modern Japanese Bath House
1. You Need to Get Naked in the Japanese Baths
The first thing I noticed in the locker room was that people were walking around naked, without even a towel to cover them up, like it was no big deal. I didn’t want to be rude and stare, so I fixed my head straightforward and made sure to look each woman in the eyes and smile like I really had no idea they were BUTT NAKED because I wasn’t looking anywhere below the neck. (Is it buck naked? Butt naked? Anyway…)
2. Put a Small Towel on Your Head
I stood there like a deer in the headlights. I saw a row of naked women sitting on stools, each one washing with a handheld shower.
There was a large indoor pool with a few women in it. Each one had a crumpled up towel on her head.
There was also an outdoor pool that I could see through the window. I say ‘pool’ because these bathing tubs did look more like swimming pools, although the outdoor one was surrounded by rocks and trees
A few naked people were walking around. No one had a big towel on them like I did, although a few women used the (very!) small towel to cover their boobs and hoo-ha!
I walked to the edge of the indoor tub/swimming pool, and stood there like an idiot. I didn’t see a place to hang my towel, so I just folded it up and put it on the edge. Then I got in the water.
A woman already in the onsen pointed to the showers and motioned that I should wash off first. Since the Japanese I met rarely spoke a word of English, and this woman didn’t either, it took me several seconds to catch on. “Oh!!” I finally said.
3. Wash Off Thoroughly Before Entering the Onsen
I got out of the bath and went to the stalls with the naked women. Even though none of us spoke each other’s languages, I started to relax because everyone was trying to help me through this ordeal.
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.
They turned on the showerhead for me and motioned that I should sit on the bench to wash myself. And when I accidentally squirted my neighbor sitting on the next stool, she laughed and helped me aim my water better.
I soon realized I needed to rinse before I got into the onsen. The women helped me turn on the faucet, and motioned for me to wet my hair, too.
I watched the other women carefully. This being Japan, I quickly caught on that this was no 1-minute perfunctory get-yourself-wet to get in the pool like I have to admit to doing here in the US. Instead, this was a thorough cleaning. When I was done, I washed off and dried myself with my big towel.
The women smiled and nodded like I had passed the first Japanese bathing test.
After I wrapped myself in my wet towel, I went back to the water. I put my big towel bag on the edge and put my small towel on my head like everyone else in the Japanese tub. If you ask me, I was making progress!
4. Don’t Dunk Under the Water
The water was pretty hot, which was awesome and just how I like it. There was steam rising off the water, and I looked through the window at the silhouette of the trees outside. The sun was sinking and I felt peaceful.
Here in the US, my gym has a mixed-gender hot tub. I always feel super awkward even though I’m wearing a bathing suit. I don’t like it when a man gets into the tub and sits right across from me. But here I was, butt naked, with a bunch of smiling women and I felt perfectly content and relaxed.
I realized that the point of the onsen is not to clean yourself in it. No one used soap or shampoo. Instead, you focus on the zen-like relaxing experience. You smile at other people or you stare out the window and absorb the gorgeous landscape.
Though I was tempted to dunk under the water, I didn’t see anyone else really swimming so I figured out that this was more like hot tubbing than jumping into a pool. Good thing, because I later found out that dunking your head under the water is a big no-no.
5. Pamper Yourself Once You Get Out of the Japanese Bath
After a while I felt a bit lightheaded. I knew I should drink some water soon, so I got out and thoroughly washed myself off again. This time I washed my hair with the shampoo provided. There was a row of women sitting on their individual shower benches rinsing off.
Then, since my big towel was all wet, I just walked naked back into the locker room. I did feel weird about that, but I did it! I had a key around my wrist and I unlocked my locker, put on my robe and slippers.
Then I spent a good long time trying out the various products on the counter. Most of the women in the locker room were busy pampering themselves with various skin and hair care products. This might sound like a stereotype, but really, I didn’t see many exceptions: Japanese women have the most gorgeous skin I’ve ever seen. I tried all the skincare creams on the counter and noted the brands, so I could purchase some a few before I left the country.
Then I dried my hair, before I headed back up to the hotel room.
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.
Second Type of Japanese Bath: Sento
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. 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. 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.
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.
Third Type of Japanese Bath: Ofuro
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 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 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.
The rules for bathing in the ofuro in a private home, include rinsing off before entering the tub. Keep a towel on your head and refrain from using soap and shampoo. In addition, allow all family members to use the tub before draining the water. And when finished, 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.
When it comes to ofuro, the bathing etiquette dictates that you should not drain the bathwater until the last family member has had a chance to enjoy it.
In between uses, you’re expected to place the ofuro cover across the surface of the tub, in order to maintain the water temperature for the next bather. In many homes in Japan, after it’s used for bathing, the greywater from the bath will be recycled to wash clothes.
What is a modern-day ofuro made of?
These days you can find ofuro made from acrylic and fiberglass. There are also luxury ofuro made from stainless steel and equipped with jets, hot water heaters, and water filters.
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.
3 Ways to Bring Home the Essence of a Japanese Bath
You know when you think you’re the only person in the whole wide world who does something? Then you find out you’re not alone?! It feels amazing, right? Well, this is what happened to me when I found out that people in Japan take their baths for warmth and relaxation rather than to get clean. I felt, now here is a place I belong.
1. Bathe for Relaxation and Warmth
But bathing in Japan, I learned not to be ashamed of my constant need to take refuge in the bathtub. Instead, I realized, this is a nourishing, rejuvenating, healthy practice that is sacred and that I should embrace.
And so, with the introduction of this blog, I have gone public with my love of baths. Immersing myself in Japanese culture gave me the courage to so.
2. Add Aromas and Bubbles to Your Bath
Since returning home from Japan, I’ve taken my bath time relaxation the next level by exploring bathtub meditation. Also, inspired by the variety of aromas and additives put in the tubs at the sento, I’ve tried a range of bathtub enhancers to max my relax.
At the sento, they also have some bathtubs with carbonated water and others with jacuzzi jets. This inspired me to get some of my own bubbles into my bathtub. For a fraction of the price of a regular jacuzzi, I put in this jacuzzi bath mat that I love.
3. 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.)
And of course, it never hurts to get your own Japanese bathrobe to wear around the house before and after bathing!
Visit a Japanese Bath House in the US
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:
First, 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.
Second, 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.
Even if You Prefer Showers, Don’t Miss Out on Japanese Baths
Let’s say you’re the kind of person who never, ever takes a bath at home. Does this mean you should never, ever try the Japanese bath?
Of course not.
An American bath is to a Japanese bath, like Kraft macaroni and cheese from a box is to a bowl of ramen from Ramen Street in Tokyo.
So put taking a Japanese bath on your bucket list, even if you prefer showers. I promise, you won’t regret it.
And if you are already a regular Bathtubber, prepare for nirvana!