Digging Into Japanese Bathhouse Culture
Traveling to Japan is a culturally enthralling experience, from its beautiful landscapes to its rich history, food scene and everything in between. But have you ever wondered what a visit to a Japanese bathhouse might be like?
Take a tour with us as we take you through the history of Japanese bathhouse culture and what to expect if you visit one today.
History of the Japanese Bathhouse
In Japanese culture, the origins of bathing are both ritualistic and spiritualistic, stemming back to Buddhist practices of the sixth century. Per Buddhist belief, the casting aside of all impurities is an important act of devotion for followers and is considered a virtue, so the widespread belief became not only to clean the body and improve one’s health, but to also purify the spirit. In fact, it is said that many temples during the sixth century had baths specifically designated for purification purposes.
As time passed, the idea of bathing spread among the noblemen of the country. The wealthy, upper class began to construct private baths in their homes around 1185, but communal bathing for the masses didn’t become popular until the emergence of the sento culture in the Edo period in 1603. Bathers during this time period would only soak the lower parts of their legs in the steaming water. It wasn’t until the invention of the suefuro, a deep heated bathtub, that bathers began to submerge themselves in water up to their shoulders — what most would consider a proper bath today.
Today, the bath has become a staple of Japanese home life as a place to soak away the stresses of the modern day. If you visit Japan, you’ll even find older homes being renovated to include bigger baths as these amenities have gradually taken a larger physical and cultural place in Japanese life.
Bathing in a Japanese Onsen
For many Japanese, onsens (hot springs) are an essential part of bathing culture. But not all hot springs are onsens, and they’re picky about the standard. Water in hot springs must be heated to over 25 degrees Celsius, and they must contain a certain amount of minerals and naturally-occuring chemicals to earn the name. Typically, onsens contain up to 19 different minerals such as calcium, sodium bicarbonate, sulfur, and iron. In Japan, there are many volcanoes across the country that have contributed to creating its onsens.
Massage at a Japanese Onsen
The full spa-like experience isn't complete without a relaxing massage. After soaking in an onsen, visitors like to linger by having spending some time to themselves in one of the quiet areas or getting a massage from one of the trained massage therapists on staff. Some onsens even include massage chairs for guests to sit and relax in.
Best Japanese Onsens to Visit
This is considered to be THE onsen to visit. It’s fed from large supplies of hot water that’s said to cure any ailment or sickness but love sickness. If you want to make it a few nights stay, there are resorts and inns surrounding the hot springs as well as cafes and shops. You can even ski in the area in the winter or hike during the warm season.
White steamy whisps paint the city skyline at Beppu city. It’s home to eight different onsens, each with public baths. Here, you can also try sand baths, covered in naturally heated sands, steam baths, and mud baths.
This onsen is simply breathtaking with its panoramic view of the mountains of Kyushu. Take a relaxing dip in this hot spring while you take in the sights of southern Japan. If you’re there for an extended stay, there are boutique stores, art museums, and cafes to explore too.
Spending Time in a Sento
While onsens let one relax and enjoy the health benefits of being immersed in mineral-rich waters, sentos are larger facilities meant for socializing with pals and practicing good hygiene.
A simple sento consists of rooms with baths, separated by gender, and a locker room to store belongings. And if you want the complete bathhouse experience, visit a super sento which offers spa baths, onsens, and saunas all in one.
Best Japanese Sentos to Visit
Considered a super sento, Spa LaQua is a hot spring complex close to Tokyo Dome City, a large entertainment complex. Known as the local’s happy place, people come here to unwind after work or on a day off. Here, you’ll find two main areas: the Spa Zone with hot spring baths and the Healing Baden Zone with low-temperature saunas. If you want more than just a bathhouse visit, there’s a beauty salon and massages available too.
Shimizuyu, meaning “clean water”, was named after the high-quality spring that once supported the area. It has a long history, spanning 100 years, and is a well-known attraction for locals and visitors alike.
This sento boasts many baths for visitors to enjoy, some of which include jet baths, a cold water bath, a carbonic acid bath, and a silk bath with microbubbles. After your bath, you can relax and sit and enjoy soft-serve ice cream or a beer.
The Do’s and Don'ts of Japanese Bathhouse Culture
You can’t visit a Japanese onsen or sento without learning some etiquette tips first. Here are a few to keep in mind so you feel right at home with the locals.
In an onsen, do leave your phone behind. There are no phones permitted in this area, even to take pictures, so that selfie will have to wait! It’s meant to be a place to relax, unwind, and settle your mind and phones are considered to be too distracting.
We find this etiquette tip particularly interesting. If you have any tattoos, do use bandages or tattoo covers to conceal them. Tattoos are associated with yakuza, a Japanese organized crime group, and are forbidden in almost every onsen in the nation. Even the smallest visible tattoo can get you kicked out of the premises.
Don’t use onsens or sentos like they’re your personal bath. These bathing areas are meant for soaking and relaxing only — no swimming, splashing, and definitely no dirty bodies allowed. The Japanese are meticulous about cleanliness, so everyone must shower beforehand and under no circumstance should your head go under the water.
In an onsen, don’t wear your swimsuit. In most baths, you’re not allowed to wear anything, so all you need is your birthday suit.
A Bathhouse Experience Right Here in Asheville
We hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into some of Japan’s baths! If you’re ready to jump into the world of bathhouse culture, come see us at Sauna House to try it first hand. Treat yourself to some solo wellness time or enjoy our facilities with your best pals. We look forward to seeing you!