How To Behave In A Japanese Public Bath

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Public baths, called sento or onsen, are a staple of Japanese culture and should be experienced if given the chance.

First-timers often find Japanese public baths a little disconcerting. The idea of a very public communal bath, though often segregated by gender, can be uncomfortable for many. However, it’s not as daunting as it sounds. If you’re curious and would like to try the public bath, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Take your shoes off
Most public baths have a locker or shoe shelf where you can leave your shoes. If the shoe shelf is indoors, make sure you don’t track mud into the public bath. After taking off your shoes, either pay at the front counter if there is one), or in a smaller bathing house, pay in the dressing area.

Make sure you’re in the right area
Women and men have separate bathing areas at most public baths. Don’t enter the wrong one! Many Japanese establishments don’t use the universal graphics for men and women, so If you’re not sure which room to enter, ask!

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Get naked
At the changing area, take everything off and store it in the locker. You’ll be given a towel, which you can use if you’re uncomfortable walking around in your birthday suit. However, it’s important to note that the towels aren’t always big enough to use as a robe, and since everyone else is naked, walking around covered in a towel just calls more attention to yourself.

Get clean at the shower area first
The Japanese bath is not where you bring your shampoo and soap. The washing happens in a separate shower area, where you are expected to scrub yourself clean before you actually get into the bath. Make sure there is no shampoo or soap left on your body before leaving the shower area. You should be completely naked and clean when you enter the bathing area. You don’t want to soak in the grime of others, so extend fellow bathers the same courtesy.

Step into the bath slowly
Public baths often contain water from hot springs that contain beneficial minerals. Because hot springs are essentially inactive volcanoes, the water temperature can be hotter than what you’re used to. Step in slowly. There are cold springs as well, filled with mountain spring water, but these are rare and often only used in the summer.

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Respect the cleanliness of the bath
Remember not to bring a towel into the bath. Towels should be left on the rim or on the side of the bath. If you do bring a face towel into the bath to put on your head, do remember that the towel should be free of soap or shampoo. The public bath is not a swimming pool, so respect the peaceful atmosphere. Most importantly, do not urinate in the bath! Most public baths have a special chemical added that turns urine purple. That could be very embarrassing for you.

You can soak in as many baths as you can, for as long as you can. When you’re done, don’t forget to dry yourself with the towel after you get out of the bath. It’s considered rude to walk into the dressing area dripping water. Remember these basic rules and you’ll enjoy this unique cultural experience!

FURTHER READING:
sentoguide.info/etiquette
japaneseguesthouses.com/japanese-bathing-etiquette
kyotobaths.info/etiquette
japan-guide.com

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