The local bath houses are called Yuu or Sento located within the city or village where Japanese people go to socialize and bathe. Most homes have shower and baths but ritual and tradition bring people to the bath houses, its an Event. Young Mothers bring in children, older mothers and grandmothers come alone, perhaps meeting their friends.
The bathhouse is gender separated, one large dressing room with large benches for sitting, long counters with sinks, massage chairs with magazine tables, a tatami mat or wooden floor are common decor. The bathing area awaits behind the steamed glass.
Step into the entrance, pay the attendant and you’re guided to the proper gender bathing area. After pretending not to be totally embarrassed, self consciously strip and stow your clothing in one of the lockers (shoes were left outside the main entrance), leave your towel on top of the clothing pile. Carry your soap, shampoo, wash cloth and parade over to the double sliding door and step into a giant steaming room lined by shower heads and faucets, the soaking tubs are in the center or along the opposite wall. While juggling your bath gear, take a plastic dish pan size tub, a small plastic seat about 12″ in diameter and 12″ off the floor – long legged persons be prepared to have your knees up to your chest – and sit at a faucet and tiled counter that is 24″ above the floor. The faucet is multifunctional, turn this knob for spout, turn that knob another way for the shower head. Caution by previous experience: The water may be extremely hot so pay close attention to the hidden hot/cold mixture knob before turning on the water. All operating instructions are written in Japanese, sometimes with picture-grams.
“Manner rules” are also posted but written in Japanese. Look around the room and discreetly watch the locals, spend less than 2 seconds on any one person or you might be considered rude.
1) Don’t splash the next person sitting next to you. (12″ of elbow room between neighbors is plenty of space!)
2) No smoking or drinking
3) No soap or towels in the soaking tubs
4) Don’t dump out the cold salt water with your bath pan
5) No running or jumping
6) Wipe or shake off excess water before leaving the bath area. hint: take a small hand towel and keep it dry
7) Enjoy your bath
Once you’ve lathered up, scrubbed your feet and thoroughly rinsed, leave your bath items and walk to the soaking tubs. The tiled Tubs are generally 3 ft deep, 6-8 ft across and 15-20 ft long. Each tub varies in dimension. Fresh hot water is continually piped in. Sometimes its heated by propane, we’ve seen wood heated ones too. Sometimes the water is piped in from a mountain hotspring – the true Onsen, or the purified seawater has been heated. The first one will be beyond hot, some reach 110 degrees. Try the second or third one, down around 100 degrees. Watch out for the electric outlet soaking tub (The electrical therapy tub) John was unaware and swore he received a 110v shock treatment directly to his lower backside. He embarrassingly broke rule #5. (But more importantly, I believe he has fully recovered from random tics, cursing outbursts and muscle spasms.)
Once accustomed to the hot water, the bath makes you feel like you are in a different world. The world stops as you float in the bubbling jets, the aches and pains disappear. Soak as long as you can stand the heat.
The cold tub is a definite must! After being thoroughly heated just before the sweating stage get into the ice cold tub. Sea water is purified and piped in, or city water has been chilled to 50 degrees. Don’t hesitate just sit down. After the initial shock to your senses the water begins to feel warm. Move between the hot and cold tubs a couple of times no sense of hot or cold remains. There are stand up shower stalls for the elderly, outdoor cold soaking tub for the real hardy folk, and steamy saunas.
On the women’s side, grannies my age and beyond may share a different experience. They come to you with soap or shampoo, sometimes somebody will offer to wash your back, they talk in quiet voices and relax in the tubs together. Lathered, rinsed , and soaked at least twice over you’re ready to get out.
After wiping off the excess water or drip drying, step into the cool air of the dressing room experience. Just as ritual as bathing, you enter the realm of Japanese woman body acceptance, whatever its form. Shiny skin glowing from the heat. Their aura is peaceful and relaxed. They smile at one another, marvel at their own forms, verbally express to one another their gratitude for cleanliness and relaxation.
They sit on the large benches with their bath towels casually draped around their shoulders. Without inhibitions they weigh themselves, pat their nude bottoms, lotions, hair brushes, and clean face towels are brought out. Joined in by most, they chatter about the dinner menu or news events, the latest fashions, this and that takes. Half dressing, half sitting they continue to share the moment of womanhood.
From start to finish, more than an hour of intimate time in the bathing experience. Last summer I was very privileged to experience the bath ritual with 3 generations. My mother, sister and niece.
After the first intimidating bath experience, you learn to relax after becoming accustomed to the 2 second gawks, nods and curious smiles. After all, these are just local bath houses with local people from small cities or villages and foreigners (gaijins) are rare in the local bath house.
The Onsen is very different, many Japanese tourists go for a weekend getaway and you will encounter many foreigners. It isn’t quite the intimate experience with total strangers. Most of the Onsen are tattoo forbidden but lately it has become subtly ignored. We didn’t have any issues with our tattoos but were very self conscious of the implication -Yakuza members.
This is Kasasa Ebisu, The Southerrn tip of Kyushu on our way to Nagasaki back in May 2017. I had the entire bath area to myself as did John. Its very elegant, the ambiance is what matters most in these places.