The bath culture in Japan is one of the most enjoyable, and relaxing experiences to be found when visiting the country. Whether an indoor bathhouse, an outdoor hot spring, a small ryokan or large bath house, it's an experience that is well worth overcoming the initial shyness and modesty concerns that a foreigner to this practice may hold. Once I embraced Japanese bathing culture it has quickly become one of the most anticipated parts of my regular trips., What is particularly fantastic about these invigorating soaks is it doesn't matter where or when you visit Japan, a bath id the best way to either start your day, or draw it to a relaxing close. If I had to pick the most relaxing bath I have had, it would be an outdoor onsen in Hakuba, after a day of skiing, where light snowfall sizzled on my warm skin as I washed away the sore muscles from a day of falling down the mountain on a snowboard. If that doesn't sound amazing to you... Well, I don't know how to respond to that possibility. For the rest of you, here's a quick run down on onsen and ofuro.
Onsen vs. Ofuro.
Onsen translates as 'hot spring' and should refer to bath houses that pipe natural spring water for use into the bath house. This means that Onsen are far more numerous around sites with more geo-thermal activity and often have resort towns around them such as Hakone and Nozawa Onsen. Unlike the Ofuro, onsen can carry characteristic scents and particles as a result of their natural source. One such example was a slightly pungent, but not unpleasant onsen in Nozawa Onsen which also had small petals from the mountain.
Ofuro is the polite form of furo, or bathtub. The main distinction between this and an Onsen is the water source. Ofuro isn't sourced from a hot spring, but are often still stylised as a hot spring pool.
Between the two types, both are fantastic with the major advantage onsens have is the unique characteristics of the water can make them more memorable or unique. Some are even claimed to have particular healing properties, however I would put that in the category of 'fun story' rather then tangible feature.
Where to go
Three major places to find onsen and ofuro are hotels/ryokan, commercial bathhouses and outdoor standalone hot springs.
Hotels and Ryokan
Ryokan, being traditional Japanese guest-houses always have Japanese style bath houses and are often in places that capitalise on a natural water source. Hotels are less likely to have Japanese style baths, but it is not uncommon for them to have a public bath, particularly if they are focused on leisure travel, rather then the no frills business chains like Toyoko Inn.
These have the advantage of often being quiet and less intimidating for the first timer to public bathing.
The bathing culture in Japan is such a staple in their culture that there exist commercial bathhouses that provide public baths for use for a fee. They range from small local bathhouses to large sprawling entertainment hubs where you can while away half a day if you so wish. These have far more people around and will be less attractive to a newcomer. Bigger bathhouses like LaQua and Oedo Onsen Monogatari will have dozens of people in the bathing areas at a time and can be intimidating first experiences unless you are in no way self conscious.
The third type of bath is something that varies by place. I experienced these in the highest numbers at Nozawa Onsen, a small village that is covered in hot springs and livens up in the ski season. Hot springs have small buildings built over them to facilitate bathing and often expect a donation of a few hundred yen for their use. Unlike the first two options, these places don't generally provide towels or soap and shampoo etc.
How to bathe
The title seems ridiculous because, who doesn't know how to bathe? I won't over complicate this though and if you are after more info and specifics, there are plenty of guides around the internet. It basically boils down to this.
- Enter the changing rooms and get undressed. Place your items in one of the baskets on the shelves, including your towel. The only towel you may take in is the very small towel that some people use for modesty purposes. This towel should never be submerged in the water of the actual bath.
- There is a line of showers with things like soap, shampoo and other self cleansing items. These are typically low to the floor and have small stools to sit on while you wash. The key here is this is the actual cleaning portion of your bathing experience. Wash yourself as well as you humanly can here and thoroughly rinse off any soap. You're about to share bath water with strangers so clean yourself as much as you hope everyone else cleaned themselves.
- Make awkward eye contact with a stranger walking past (Optional)
- Now you can finally enter the bath itself. Some places have just the one bath, but others may have several with varying temperatures. Test the water before you enter as some section can be much hotter then others. Once in, relax. Take some care in hot baths in particular and get out if you start to feel dizzy. Etiquette in the bath is to be respectful and not splash around or swim. Move gently in and around the bath and feel free to talk, although keep volume soft and polite as well. Remember, if you bought in the small towel to keep it above the water.
- When you are done you can exit to the changing room and dry off with your proper towel. If you were in an onsen with some silt or are feeling particularly hot you can rinse yourself off to cool down before leaving the bath section.
Congratulations! You just had your first bath. The changing rooms are very generous with things like combs, skin moisturizer and all manner of things to help you keep the refreshed and relaxed feeling of your bath afterwards. It's also why I don't take toiletries to Japan on holiday.
If you have any questions or comments then please let me know below.