Etiquette: what to do at a Japanese public bath

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Hot water, that is what this website is all about. Hot water in a bath tub, perhaps with a tub of cold water next to it. And a sauna, a jacuzzi, a bath with nice smelling herbs and perhaps even an electric bath. All together they make a public bath, or as the Japanese call them (amongst other things): sentō. As with most things in life, culture dictates how things are done at the sentō. If you’re interested in an analysis of the culture you’ll need to go elsewhere. But if you simply want to know how to use a Japanese public bath without getting caught with your pants down, read on. You will need to prepare a few things before leaving your house. Take with you a big bath towel and a small washing towel. Soap and shampoo are available freely in most larger sentō, but you will need to bring your own if you are heading for a smaller establishment. If you forget, you can usually purchase all of those items at the counter of the bath house. Ready? On to the good stuff then. Bathing at a sentō is a simple 9 step process:

  1. Take your shoes off at the door. Every bath house, small or large has shoe lockers in the genkan to store your shoes before entering the building. Some places take your shoe locker key at reception in exchange for a key to a clothes locker in the dressing room.
  2. Pay and enter. Not necessarily in that order. Large bath houses have a front desk where you pay before making your way to the dressing room. Smaller sentō have a bandai right in the datsuijo (dressing room) where you pay. Before entering the dressing room make sure to go into the right one. The otokoyu (men’s bath) is marked with 男, printed on a blue curtain hanging across the dressing room entrance. The onnayu (women’s bath) entrance is covered with a red curtain marked with 女. In Kyoto the otokoyu entrance is usually on the left and the onnayu entrance on the right.
  3. Undress. In the datsuijo you will find the walls lined with lockers. Pick an empty one, take off your clothes (yes, all of them) and put them in the locker. Lock the door and put the key around your wrist or ankle. You’re ready to enter the bathing area.
  4. Wash yourself. This is the most important step, so lets repeat it: wash yourself. In Japan people wash before entering the bath. It makes sense if you think about the many bodies that share the bath water every day. You don’t want to soak in the grime of others, so get rid of your own grime first.
  5. Hop in the bath. When you have scrubbed yourself thoroughly, pick a bath and sit in it. Take as long as you like. Hop in as many different baths as you like.
  6. Rinse. When you’re ready and done, rinse your body. Most baths have something in the water to keep it from getting a breathing ground for germs. You might just want to rinse that off.
  7. Wipe yourself. Before leaving the bathing area wipe yourself with your washing towel. Manner dictates that entering the dressing room dripping with water is rude. It is also messy and easy to prevent.
  8. Wipe yourself again. Back in the dressing room wipe yourself again with your bath towel. Your body is still damp and getting back in your clothes like that isn’t very comfortable.
  9. Dress. It really goes without saying, but put your clothes back on before heading out.

Once you know how things are done, the process is quite simple really. Just keep in mind a few things that are not done:

  • Don’t splash water on your fellow bathers when washing yourself.
  • Don’t enter the baths with soap or shampoo still on your body. Rinse everything off first.
  • Don’t put your washing towel in the bath water. Again, you share the water with many.
  • Don’t get directly into the bath after coming out of the sauna. Rinse the sweat off first.
  • Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do in your own bath at home.