Being cheap is no excuse to stink. Not when there are loads of public baths around for ¥350 to ¥480 a dip.

Photo by John Daub

If you’re expecting me to start talking about prices and places, then you’d be better off going here. The details are irrelevant if you have no intention of getting naked with a group of guys or gals who you’ve never met before. I’m here to convince you that you really should consider it and here’s why:

If you try onsen bathing etiquette, you’ll never go back to western bathing.

After years of taking quick showers, I was shocked at how nice a long soak in a bath feels. Western bathtubs are small and not made for much movement. Japanese public baths are spacious! You can plop yourself down in any corner, by a window or near the running water. The hot water penetrates the body deeply and when you get hot, just get out and move to another bath. Many sento (public baths) and onsen (hot springs) have baths with varying temperatures, sizes and views.

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There are whirlpools, jaccuzis, medicinal baths and even baths with electrical pulses travelling through the water! They’re all designed to tantalize the senses.

The Public Bath is where a lot of communication happens.

There’s an expression called Hadaka no Tsukiai 裸の付き合い which can be loosely translated to mean ‘a friendship with nothing to hide or an open relationship – everyone’s equal when naked’.

I’ve always wondered why locals are quite shy when talking to strangers but at the public bath, they’re more open while they’re naked than with their clothes on.

Photo by John Daub

The reason is because there’s no need to consider someone’s rank in their company or position in society. You’re naked! You’re equal. You can just be yourself.

It’s a cheap afternoon of cultural enrichment.

480 yen buys you more than just a visit to a Tokyo sento. You can soak for as long as you like – even until closing. After bathing, many locals drink milk for 100yen or sit in a massage chair which is sometimes as cheap as 10yen for a few minutes. The bath houses themselves are usually stunning. The exteriors certainly stand out in the neighborhood and the interior may not have not changed since the 1950s. Many feature high ceilings, antique fixtures and wood floors.

The outside of a neighbourhood sento
The outside of a neighbourhood sento | Photo by John Daub

Don’t forget the other bathers! You may find yourself learning some Japanese, getting a hint on a good restaurant or even being invited to dinner by the restaurant owner or to a friendly family’s home.

Your skin will feel so smooth afterwards.

This is especially true of the onsen where geothermally heated water from the depths of volcanic Japan carries loads of minerals which are beneficial to your skin. Soak in it and yes, there’s some kind of effect. I think this may be more important to women because when I leave the bath, I just feel sweaty and relaxed.

Lovely Views of Mt Fuji!

Sort of.

Photo by John Daub

Many sento look the same on the inside – separated with men on the left and women on the right. There are lockers for shoes at the entrance and a changing area inside. In the bathing area, there are individual places to wash, a couple of big bath tubs and on the wall, a fantastic mural of Japan’s iconic Mt. Fuji. I’m always impressed when I see art as big as this! It may not be the real thing but it’s still quite a scene. It’s certainly one that’s Only in Japan!

Check out the video and let me know what you think!
Will you be getting naked with the locals and trying a Japanese bath? If you do, there’s no turning back.

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Just so you know:
Sento are in nearly every Japanese neighborhood. Going to one is like stepping into a time machine, the decor is usually from the 1950’s.
An onsen is more expensive but also available for day-trippers. If you want to sample an onsen resort, go during the day. Prices vary from ¥800 to ¥2,500 yen.

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Filed under: Living
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