How to take a bath in Japan

For me the cold winter months are the best time of year to take advantage of the Japanese bath. Japanese take particular enjoyment in bathing – not just to get clean – but to relax their body and mind, soaking sometimes for over an hour and sometimes several times a day when on holiday.

When I first came to Japan I was pretty shocked at my own bath. It was little more than a stainless steel square that I kind of had to squat in. It was good for sitting in to heat up in my frigid Showa-era apaato, but little else. Instead I sat on my little stool and took a shower, also a bit odd but as the shower head was mounted about waist height so sitting was the only way to take a shower.

Of course, we all know that you don’t actually soap up in a bath. That’s practically the first Japanese custom you learn. The shower is where all the action takes place. The tub is for stress relief and relaxing.

So in a particularly quirky Japanese fashion, my girlfriend eschewed “the drawer” and nonchalantly introduced all manner of onsen powders and bath salts into my bath as a way of moving in slowly. For her the bath was (and still is) for reading, like, for hours – and not for a lot of the things I had in mind. It was just this square and sadly we couldn’t both fit into it – though we did give it (an uncomfortable) try.

Bathing in Japan is just one of those things that isn’t as sexual as you might think (“adult videos” and soaplands excluded of course). And though we’ve visited our fair share of love hotels with baths fitted out for distinctly athletic purposes (and wow were they ever for that purpose!), on the whole bathing is seen as a culture. Bathing requires etiquette – and when it comes to communal bathing a bit of bravery for the body-conscious.

The idea that grown men and often children of both sexes would all bathe together was astonishing to me when I was first introduced to the idea. But slowly I began to see it the way the Japanese do, as a social activity, a cultural touchstone which indicated a more relaxed view of our bodies. In America it just wouldn’t happen outside a gym shower. I remember the awful years of dreading the after-soccer practice shower and my fear of exposing my scrawny body and gangly bits to other guys.

But in Japan it’s all on display and no one seems to care. Sure some guys wrap themselves in a bath towel a bit but it seems mostly as a gesture of politeness and less one of embarrassment. Hell, the cleaning lady comes in and out of public baths nonchalantly nary a care in the world (though I must say that I have a secret feeling she’s checking to see if the gaijin equipment is all that it is cracked up to be.)

My first trip to a communal bath was to our local sento (bath house). Sento aren’t as common as they used to be when every neighborhood had one, but while it lasted ours was quite popular and very relaxing. It had a steam bath, a sauna, a cold bath and a large bath for lounging around that had some sort of minerals in the water. Normally sento don’t get their water from a spring, but some will mix in stuff to make the water good for you somehow.

For me the best part of a sento is the cold bath. I like to freeze my ass off, staying completely still to let my brain literally stop thinking. It’s an incredible sensation. Then I step into the hot bath and there’s a kind of rush as my body tingles awake from a kind of hibernation. Occasionally some dude will pop into the normally small confines of the cold bath just as you get that warm layer going and ruin the whole vibe. But that’s a communal bath for you. Japanese seem pretty uninhibited.

Nowadays there are super sentos, massive places with crowds of people and eating establishments and all kinds of baths. But let’s be honest – sentos are a bit plebeian. For the prime bathing experience you want to visit an onsen.

Onsen come in a wide variety: mountain and sea, antique and modern. Some ryokan (Japanese-style hotels) often offer private baths in your room, for a price and if you pick the right one you can get a rotenburo (outdoor bath) with a magical view. Let’s face it, Onsen are the bomb. Not only do you do nothing but hang out in the bath, drink, sleep and eat awesome food – you get your own personal robe and slippers. Of course the range is vast and so are prices, so choose wisely. Most large hotels these days have a large communal bath or even a rotenburo, but to me it isn’t quite the same. A weekend getaway for a couple or a family to an onsen ryokan is just the trick to escaping the winter blues.

Being a volcanic country you can visit an onsen nearly anywhere on any island of Japan. Although Okinawa seems to have fewer hot springs, a trip to Kyushu is onsen paradise. Just an overnight boat ride puts you in range of Beppu and Yufuin which are major tourist destinations. Slightly farther afield are the famous sunamushi sand baths of Ibusuki.  Here you are covered in sand heated by onsen water and then scrubbed clean – a great experience for body and soul.

While Nagoya is not an onsen town it is very near some good ones. Gero is consistently rated highly and is a pleasant train ride with a view north via JR. Note that finding the right ryokan is essential however, as the city is a bit built up. You can’t go wrong with a stay at the beautiful Yunoshimakan which is as old as the hills it stands on overlooking the city. Another advantage Gero has is that it is makes an easy day trip or part of an extended trip to Takayama a bit farther north. Also near Hida Takayama are a number of great onsen but my favorite is tucked away in Hirayu. Getting that far north may require some skilz for the novice but things are much more gaijin-friendly these days and the ryokan are very welcoming to foreign tourists.

Or, you could make more of an expedition of it and head to Shirahone Onsen, a small onsen town in Nagano. The town is a loose collection of a dozen or so ryokan along the slopes of a steep valley. Shirahone Onsen gets its name from its milky white spring water, which is nearly opaque with magnesium and calcium sediments and is believed to relieve gastrointestinal ailments.

If mountains aren’t your thing then head to the Chita peninsula by the airport, which is lined with onsen. Oh and Utsumi, a popular beach town in its own right which also sports a number of hotels with nice public baths. Here you have waterfront views and walks on the beach – something I prefer a bit more in summer which seems to be the opposite point of view of many onsen enthusiasts.

No matter whatever your pleasure you can take the chill off by taking advantage of Japan’s awesome bathing culture. Here’s a few tips on how to behave!

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