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Japanese Sento
By Audrey

The Rituals & Etiquette of the Japanese Bath

The Internet featured this Martial Arts flick Shogun Assassin, which told me a story that I'd like to tell you. Hmm… does that make sense? Anyway, so as not to further confuse you since the topic at hand can be bewildering, especially to a non-Japanese, let me first tell you this story that I read about(1). The entire story is told from a child's perspective, who is the infant son of the main character Lone Wolf. Lone Wolf was a fierce samurai who had angered the Shogun. Relentlessly pursued by the Shogun's ninjas, he was forced to roam the Japanese countryside, constantly on the run with his infant son. They could trust no one, as the ninjas were 'pros in disguise'; it was difficult to tell who were genuine ninjas and who weren't. Tired and weary from their journey, Lone Wolf and his son decided to stop for the night at a country inn. They only wished for some hot food and a bath. But the prospect of a bath would leave them naked and defenseless. What if the innkeeper turned out to be one of the Shogun's ninjas? The summation of it was prophetically expressed by the child who exclaimed, "sometimes you have to take a chance if you want to take a bath".

Coming back to the topic at hand, public baths are still very much a part of the lifestyle in Japan although the days of the Shogun are long gone. It is a very popular way of relaxing and a cultural experience that is quite unique and enjoyable to the foreigner. However, it can also be an intimidating experience for those who are not familiar with the proper customs, rituals, and etiquette. Some may not even attempt to visit a public bath due to its 'strange' formalities.

I hope that this article would be able to put your fears to rest and that your actions in a public bath won't draw gasps, but rather praises from the locals who may think that you've been doing this for years.

The hotel you're staying in is probably the first place you would learn of a public bath. More often than not, these public baths are segregated between men and women and coed baths are rather difficult to find.

The 'journey' to a public bath can actually begin in your very own hotel room. A yukata, a casual cotton kimono commonly worn by both men and women in Japan, and a pair of slippers are available for you to use. Once you've slipped into these two basic accessories, you are ready to take that brave step to the public bath. Although the yukata resembles a bathrobe, I assure you that it's quite alright to wear it out of your room.

The fun begins once you enter the public bathroom. Shelves are provided for you to leave your shoes or slippers. Please note that it is almost sinful to wear your shoes/slippers inside houses, rooms, or even some restaurants in Japan. With the same implications of "No Pets Allowed", shoes are also not allowed in public baths. But do ensure that all your socks have no holes in them before visiting Japan due to the nature of their culture or it could prove to be somewhat embarrassing.

Next on line is a small oblong towel, something hardly meant for bathing. This towel is useful in only two instances. I'll tell you more in due time.

Once you've taken the minuscule towel and removed your shoes/slippers, proceed to the changing room. Lockers and baskets in which to put your clothes will greet you although it is said that lockers are unnecessary in Japan, as street crime is almost non-existent. But who knows? It is always better to be safe than sorry. Besides, wouldn't you rather go home with your own belongings than with someone else's?

Aha… you should now be stark naked and ready to enter the bath. You will find that teeny-weeny towel extremely useful in covering certain body parts. Although it may not be the largest piece of fabric, but something is always better than nothing. Cover as much of your front as possible when walking around. It is said that the Japanese have a real taboo against pubic hair. So please make that your No. 1 priority when covering yourself. However, if you are really into nudity, it is perfectly fine. No one's going to jump on you for that.

So, with clothes off, you head right into the pool, right? Wrong… We are talking about the public baths in Japan. And the MOST important etiquette is to NOT jump straight into the pool. You must first wash and scrub yourself raw before dipping into the bath.

Along the perimeters of the bathroom are numerous stations with showers, soaps, shampoos, and small stools. Pick an unoccupied shower station, turn on the water, rinse the little stool, and seat yourself down. Now, please 'unwrap' yourself, no matter how much you love that security blanket (err…towel), and use it as a wash cloth. By Japanese standards, you are expected to wash and scrub yourself countless times until you are totally clean. Never get in the bath with soap on you. After all, the hot water in the public bath is meant for soaking and not for cleaning. A high level of hygiene is thus necessary especially, if I may say so, on your private area. But, of course, one need not make a display out if it.

With the precedents out of the way, you are now ready to enjoy the bath. Jump in… and OUCH!!! Unless you are used to hot water in your tub, my advice would be, "don't jump/hop/splash/dive in". The water is extremely hot. There are usually two separate tubs, one with very hot water and the other with super-hot water. Apart from enjoying the hot waters, sauna facilities are also available in most public baths.

And that's basically all there is to the public baths in Japan. Just sit back and enjoy the pruning process…err…I meant, enjoy the soak. Some baths even provide lovely views of gardens or of the 'outside' world while soaking. When you are done, various facilities await you in the changing room, such as skin moisturizers, hairbrushes, and a hair dryer. Most baths also offer massage chairs for further relaxation. When you have completely finished, you may again wear your yukata back to your room as you would a bathrobe.

Besides bathing in the hotels, public baths can also be found elsewhere. Check this link that gives names and brief descriptions of numerous public baths in Tokyo, Try this other link entitled "How to Take a Bath at Ginza", It also includes payment information. Despite the wide range of places to choose from, the procedures for bathing in a Japanese sento (public bath) are always the same throughout Japan.

Now that you know how to behave in a public bath in Japan, I do hope that you would find it an enjoyable experience. Perhaps it would be better to bring a larger towel the next time?

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(1) Special Thanks to Cheri Sicard (



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