With the invention of indoor plumbing and bathtubs (not really news to anyone, we’d hope), the traditional public bath houses and hot springs of Japan are now used for relaxing getaways more than actual hygienic necessity. Heck, even capybara soak in hot springs to relax!
Hot springs, known as onsen in Japanese, are also becoming popular with foreign visitors, at least those brave enough to bare it all in front of strangers. For health and safety reasons, there are quite a few rules to pay attention to when soaking in a public bath. A very nicely designed etiquette poster, which recently surfaced on TripAdvisor, is very thorough and is even teaching Japanese people a thing or two about the bathing experience!
In case you aren’t familiar with the Japanese style of communal bathing, let’s quickly go over the information sections of the poster.
▼ Even seasoned hot springs goers probably don’t know these facts!
▼ Japanese people have been bathing in hot springs for over 13 centuries!?
▼ We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but be sure to pay attention to Step 5 (below)!
Now, we’ll let the poster guide you through the bathing routine. But before we start, in case you didn’t get the message from the pictures above, bathing is separated by gender and done butt-naked. So, before starting Step 1, make sure to take off all of your clothes in the changing room. You will often be given a small white “privacy towel,” with which you can scrub when washing or cover your private parts before hopping in the tub (more on this towel later).
You don’t want to soak in a tub of water tainted by the dirt and grime of others, right? Didn’t think so. Wash thoroughly, so you (and everyone else) can soak in comfort.
This step is surprising even to some Japanese people! Personally, I’ve never done it either, but it makes sense. Sometimes stepping into a piping hot tub can be a shock to the body.
“Relax and stay quiet while bathing.” I can’t speak for the men’s side, but for ladies, onsen time often doubles quality gossip time. You can even make friends in the bath! But always be aware of those around you and try to speak at a low volume, especially if the grannie across from you is giving you a death stare!
This is probably the most relaxing position to be in while bathing! Definitely give it a try. If the edge of the bathtub hurts your neck, roll up your towel and use it as a pillow (but don’t put it in the water, again more on that later). If you get hot and need a break, it’s totally acceptable to sit on the edge of the bath to cool off (use the privacy towel to cover up if you’re feeling shy).
This is another one that surprises some Japanese people. Through observation of others, I picked up the habit of rinsing off before exiting, but apparently, I’ve been depriving my skin for years.
This isn’t one of the poster’s “steps,” but it easily could be. Pseudo-step 6: Use that handy towel to wipe any excess water off your body before heading into the changing room. This will keep the floor drier to prevent slips and wet socks!
Psuedo-step 7: You wouldn’t think so, but sitting in a tub can be tiring. The heat and sweating combined with the deep relaxation can definitely take its toll. Make sure to hydrate (and/or enjoy some coffee milk), and take a break in the tatami room before heading home.
Now, we get into some general etiquette tips. Some of these may seem like common sense, but it’s a good review none-the-less.
The water in the bathtub could be very hot (thus Step 2). However, no matter how hot it is, don’t add cold water. If need be, there is usually a cold water basin you can step into or use a bucket to splash yourself to cool off.
This many not be as much of a problem for guys, but finding long hairs floating in the tub is a little gross. Tie your hair back to avoid this problem! Also, since you’re supposed to be naked, leave the trunks behind, although mixed-gender baths will sometimes provide additional cover-wear.
This one is a bummer for a lot of foreigners. The word on the street is that since yakuza (Japanese mafia) members are often the ones with tattoos, for the safety of the customers, many onsen ban tattoos, thus yakuza, all together. While this isn’t really fair, it is how it is. Lately, however, many establishments have been more open to body art. Still, if you can, try covering up smaller tattoos with bandages.
Finally, the towel part! Another shocking tip: Soak your towel in cold water and put it on your head to avoid dizziness! That’s genius! Some people also use their towels to scrub their bodies while washing, thus getting soapy or dirty, so as a kindness to others, don’t put towels in the shared tub.
You may have been told as a kid to wait 30 minutes before going swimming. The same holds true here, although, there is more emphasis on the “avoid alcohol” part. Ever notice how drinking makes you warm? Combine drunkenness and a hot bath and you’ve made a recipe for heat stroke. This is also why you don’t want to soak more than three times a day (although, even twice seems a bit excessive).
It might feel like there are a lot of rules to follow at onsen, but after a trip or two, you’ll be a pro! Despite having gone to hot springs countless times, even I learned a few things reading this poster, as have many Japanese people! So, if you’ve never visited a hot spring, you are now fully armed with everything you need to know. Go off and bathe peacefully!
[ Read in Japanese ]