Navigating public baths

Japan is talking a lot about how the government decided to open the nation back up to tourists starting on the 10th.

Thus, I thought I’d spend a few posts here offering some tips on how to be a good tourist here that I’ve learned through my own experiences.

Today, I’m going to focus on public baths.

What are public baths in Japan?

They’re places usually found all over the place where you pay money, enter one part of the bath that is meant for either men or women (choose wisely), strip down naked and enjoy some hot-water baths.

Sentou vs. onsen

You’ll likely find lots of signs declaring the bath is a sentou or onsen. It’s good to know the difference.

A sentou is just regular water that’s been heated up. People still like to go to them because a lot of sentous try to make up for the lack of hot-spring water by putting special scents into the water or, I’m not making this up, running weak electrical currents through the water to “stimulate the body.”

An onsen, on the other hand, is hot spring water. This is water from the earth that is naturally heated and contains minerals and other things that people here swear will heal whatever ails you. I have no idea if it actually does or not.

Using a public bath

Whether your plan is to use the local sentou (usually found in crowded cities for people who live in such cheap apartments, they don’t even have their own shower room) or visit a luxurious onsen spa resort, the steps to follow are basically the same:

  1. Take your shoes off at the entrance.
  2. Find the shoe locker area and stuff your shoes into an empty one.
  3. Take your shoe-locker key to reception and buy tickets for the baths.
  4. After payment (some have you pay at the end, like a hotel), reception will give you a bracelet that contains a key. The number on the key bracelet is your locker number in the public bath area.
  5. Go the men or women’s bath area
  6. Find your locker according to the number on your bracelet.
  7. Strip completely naked and stuff all of your clothing into the locker.
  8. Find the shower area.
  9. Scrub yourself like you’ve never scrubbed before. People here expect you to be sparkling clean before you put one toe into the baths.
  10. For those of you with long hair, put it in a high bun on top of your head whether you washed it or not.
  11. Sometimes you can find a tiny pool of water at the entrance of the main area, accompanied with a ladle or a tiny bucket. Some people enjoy, for some reason, splashing themselves with the hot water before stepping into the baths. This is an optional step, in my opinion.
  12. Some people also like to carry little towels with them into the baths. I honestly don’t know why. Maybe someone will explain this one to me someday.
  13. Take your time enjoying all the baths that are available. Feel free to move around and experience them all.
  14. When you’re done, rinse yourself off at one of the standing showers that are available.
  15. Go to your locker, dry yourself off with a towel. The women’s rooms (no idea about the men’s) usually have a little vanity mirror area with hair dryers and sometimes complimentary skin care products.
  16. Many people here, and I, recommend drinking an ice cold milk from a little glass bottle vending machine usually available near the front entrance of the public baths. I have no idea what it is, but nothing quite hits the spot like cold milk after all those hot baths.
  17. Go back to reception and hand back your bracelet. They will hand you back the key to the shoe locker so you can get your shoes.

Do’s and don’t’s at a public bath

  1. Do not splash. This is a place of relaxation, and only little kids can get away with stuff like that. I think it’s something you could conceivably get away with if absolutely no one else is in the public bath, but it’s highly frowned upon.
  2. Do not run. Just like you wouldn’t around a pool, the floors at public baths are always slippery.
  3. Do not put your head underwater. This is a big no-no because I think people just don’t like the idea of your hair touching the water. I’ve seen people on TV shows go underwater at a public bath (they wear towels or a bathing suit when on TV), but I’ve never seen this happen in real life.
  4. Wear your hair up. I just wanted to repeat that one since I’ve been personally scolded for forgetting to wear my hair up after I’d just washed it. This means sopping-wet hair tied at the top of your head.
  5. Do not stare at anyone there. While some people might completely forget their manners and stare at you for being foreign, it is universally considered creepy to stare at naked people. That is why most public baths, especially ones with open-air options, will put decorations around for you to look at, instead.
  6. Bring your own towel. You can rent one, but that’s just wasted money, in my opinion.
  7. Bring toiletries you need. They won’t have hairbrushes, for example, except ones you can buy for an outrageous price. At the very least, try to find a nearby 100-yen store and buy one there. Most public baths will have shampoo, conditioner and body soap, but you can bring your own little bottles of stuff if you want.
  8. Don’t be loud. Again, this is not a public pool – it’s a place people go to for relaxation and to unwind. It’d be like going to a spa and treating it like a house party.
  9. Scrub yourself clean. Another repeat, but people here like ridiculously clean people to use the baths. I still personally think the baths have to still be less-than-clean, but I guess it makes people here feel better if they see you really taking your time to make sure every inch of you is squeaky clean before you step into the baths.

Going to public baths with little kids

Some public baths are cool with kids who aren’t potty trained, others are not so much, so I would check ahead on their website or ask reception before spending money there. Some of the bigger public bath facilities actually have baths that specifically will say “Kids who aren’t potty trained can use this one”, which is helpful.

If you have a baby, most public baths will have a plastic tub (I’m not sure if there’s one in the men’s public bath area) for you to scoop up some water (where you put the baby while you do this is beyond me) from the baths and put them in there.

Some public baths cater to babies and really young kids, and a lot of hotels also have “baby vacation packages” where they will fill your hotel room with baby stuff you need and generally have a public bath available that’s easier to use when you have small kids in tow.

I also highly, HIGHLY, recommend something called a “kashi kiri onsen” (kahsh keeree ohnsen), which is a tiny onsen you can rent out just for yourself and your family. That way the whole family can just go into the same onsen and you don’t have to worry about your kids annoying everyone. Many hotels have this option, so I recommend taking a look around online.

General rule: Most public baths are ok with your kids being with you in the public bath as long as they’re below roughly the age of 8 (check the public bath you’re visiting as the rule varies). That means dads with daughters can still take them into the men’s public bath and moms with sons can take them into the women’s public bath. After the age of 8, again the rule varies, the kids have to go into the public bath society says matches their assigned gender.

Public baths for those who don’t identify with their assigned gender

Japan is super not interested in catering to people who don’t identify with their assigned gender when it comes to public baths.

That being said, you still have a couple of options.

First, is the “kashi kiri onsen” I mentioned above. Anyone can use it for however long you can rent it.

Second, are public baths that have “mixed public baths.” These are baths for men and women to use, and bathing suits are required.

What to do if you have a tattoo

You may have heard about this one, but Japan does NOT like tattoos.

Tattoos are associated with organized crime here. Rather than banning people with certain tattoos from public baths, however, Japan went nuclear and banned anyone with tattoos from almost all public baths in the nation.

There are a few things you can do to work around this.

First, try to find a public bath that is cool with tattoos. Before the pandemic, quite a few public baths in Tokyo understood that foreigners have tattoos and are not, in fact, in organized crime, so they will have signs up by the main doors, usually in English, that say “Tattoos are ok here.”

Second, if that fails or your friends are insisting on a public bath that hates tattoos, try to cover your tattoo up with a waterproof bandage. If it’s too large to cover up, you might have to just sit and wait in the lobby for your friends.