Big in Japan: How to take a bath without losing your honor

As I’ve said before, summer is in full effect here in Tokyo, which means that the temperature is soaring and the humidity is saturating. And, if your glands are anywhere near as prolific as mine are, this means that you’re probably sweating through pretty much everything that you’re wearing.

The Japanese are renowned for their admirable attention to hygiene and cleanliness, which presents a bit of a problem if your BO starts to act up in the long summers. While successive applications of a strong deodorant are certainly good measures to take before stepping on the subway, there is a uniquely Japanese way to stay so fresh and so clean.

Scattered throughout Tokyo are a good number of sent? (????), which are public and communal bath houses that you can seek refuge in if your sweat starts stink. Of course, taking a bath in Japan is a bit different than your home country, though fortunately it’s not too difficult to scrub down without losing your honor.

On that note, today’s posting is a quick and dirty (er, clean) guide to taking a bath the Japanese way…

As you might imagine, the most difficult part of taking a bath in Japan is sometimes finding a sentō, especially if you don’t read or speak Japanese. Fortunately for lost foreigners, bath houses are usually marked by a curtain containing the kanji 湯 (yu, hot water), or the corresponding hiragana, ゆ.

Once inside, remove your shoes and place them in the locker before paying your admission fee. Public sentōs usually cost only a few dollars, though you might have to pay a bit more to rent a ‘modesty towel’ as well as some soap, shampoo and conditioner.

After paying, keep in mind that bath houses are divided into male and female quarters, so be sure to choose the right side. Again, if you can’t read or speak Japanese, a good indicator is the color of the curtain marking each entrance: blue is for guys, pink is for gals.

The next room you enter will be a changing room, where you should strip down completely. While spas in the West allow you to wear a bathing suit, in Japan the preferred costume is your birthday suit. If you’re feeling a bit shy, the previously mentioned modesty towel is usually big enough to cover your sensitive bits and pieces.

From here, it’s time to enter the bathing area, though don’t lose your honor by jumping straight into the pool. On the contrary, you need to scrub down everything (and I mean everything) at the line of shower stalls along the wall. The principle idea here is that you will be completely clean before entering the bath water, so when in doubt, keep scrubbing.

Once you’re sufficiently clean, and you’ve removed all of the soap (this is important!), you can now enter the bath water. Generally speaking, it’s considered bad form to dunk your head, enter the tub with your modesty towel or wash yourself vigorously in the bath. However, assuming you avoid these pitfalls, you can pretty much sprawl out and soak your cares away.

While you can stay as long as you’d like, a good hour or two is generally enough time to give yourself a good cleaning. On the way out, be sure to top up with a bottle of ice cold green tea, or if it’s a bit later in the day, a frothy pint of draft beer. And, while there is a good chance that you’ll start to sweat immediately upon leaving the onsen, at least you’ve washed away any potentially offending bacteria.

** All images courtesy of the WikiCommons Media Project **