Public bathing. It is definitely an experience. From what I have gathered, foreigners tend to either love it or despise it. At first, I despised it, but after a few times, I grew neutral towards public bathing. If you want to get the full, Japanese experience (what anime is complete without at least one episode with everyone taking a bath and the guys trying to peek in on the girls, or vice versa?), here is what you need to do.
Prepare to strip! Before entering the main bathing area, you will enter your respective sex’s changing room (red for women, blue for men) and take off your clothes. You are expected to bring your own towels (a large one for drying and a small one for taking in with you to the baths). You should place your main towel with your clothes. There are often coin lockers provided to secure valuables and clothing. Once you have taken off all your clothes and secured your valuables, take the small towel and go in. Swimsuits are not allowed in the baths. If you have tattoos, find a way to cover them up with bandages or something similar because you will not be allowed in most baths if they are visible. The reason for this is that the yakuza (Japanese gangsters) are known to have tattoos all over their bodies. So, rather than saying “no gangsters allowed” and risk facing the yakuza’s wrath, the bathhouses get around this by not allowing anyone in with tattoos.
In the Bath
Like the changing rooms, the baths are also separated by sex (though there are some rare exceptions in rural areas or “family baths”). Once you enter the steamy room where others are bathing, you are first expected to rinse off before entering the bath. There will either be taps/showers where you can wash yourself off (soap, shampoo, and conditioner are usually provided) or washbowls to take the water from the bath and dump it on yourself before entering. While rinsing off, use the stools provided to sit down, since standing up while washing is considered rude. Once you are clean, you may enter the baths.
If you’re squeamish about being naked in front of others, you can use the small towel to partially cover yourself while outside of the water. However, to not get this towel wet or put it in the bath. That is why you see so many characters in anime keep their towels on their heads. Women with long hair often use it to keep their hair up, since hair should also not enter the bath.
When entering the tub, be aware that the water can be very hot, even to the point of scalding, at some locations. Enter the bath very slowly and do not move around too much. Once in the water, you are supposed to relax and enjoy yourself. It is not uncommon for others in the bath to try to strike up conversation with you (you are both naked in the same bath, so it is not like there is a need to put on airs), and by all means be pleasant and try to return conversation. However, do not soak in the bath for too long, otherwise you may get light-headed and even faint! This is why people “hop” from bath to bath and spend only 10-15 minutes soaking in each one.
When you are finished soaking, you are free to leave. You do not need to wash off any chemicals like in a pool. So once you’re done, just head to the changing room (do not forget the little towel you brought in), dry yourself off with the large towel, change back into your clothes, and move on.
There are two main types of facilities that offer baths. One is a bathhouse and the other is an onsen. The only difference between the two is that the water for an onsen comes from a hot spring while the water for a bathhouse does not. If you choose to enter either, you will find that each will usually offer several different baths with their own “themes” (Japanese, Arabic, Roman, etc.). There are also usually steam rooms to sweat away your troubles, as well as outdoor baths, which feel great on cold days.
For the hard-core adventurers, there are still other types of bath-like treatments, like being buried in hot sand. If you really want to turn up the heat, visit an onsen that is heated by volcanoes. Some volcanic hot springs are so hot; they actually cook food over them! Of course you cannot bathe in those. The experiences and discoveries in Japan are endless, if you are up for them.
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