Good practices in onsen and sento in Japan
Japanese public baths: good manners
During our travels in Japan, we are numerous people willing to experiment the benefits of hot waters offered by onsen ♨️ (natural hot springs) or sento (inside public baths). These ones, just like numerous other services in Japan, possess a number of codes of conduct that it is wise to respect. And yet, these manners are rarely explained or displayed on site. Therefore, this article comes to summarize the good practices to know in order to well behave in onsen and sento.
First of all, if it is not stated on a board, or if the staff cannot see them, systematically ask at the entrance if tattoos are allowed, eventually by showing yours. When entering the cloakroom, if it is not a mixed-gender place (which are rare), do not confuse which side to enter! The kanji are respectively 男 and 女 for "men" and "women", sometimes with simple color codes such as blue and pink.
Entering and well behaving in the thermal baths
Here is how to enjoy the experience at its best:
- Remove all your clothes and take only a small towel (usually provided) to enter in the bathroom 🛁. Just like around swimming pools, do not run around the baths. If you have long hair, please tie it up.
- Clean your entire body as soon as you arrive and importantly before entering in the water, thanks to the dedicated spaces for this: often equipped with showers, mirrors and small stools. Rinse yourself entirely with the hot water: it is called 掛け湯 kakeyu.
- To enter in a bath, do not jump nor dive! Since the temperature is often very high, it is recommended to proceed step by step, and this also avoids to faint. If you have heart, circulatory or other medical conditions, please refer to your doctor before this experience. The first step consists in 半身浴 hanshin-yoku, to dip yourself up to the belly and then 全身浴 zenshin yoku, going down so the water reaches your shoulders. To avoid wetting your towel, you can put it on your head.
- When you start sweating from the forehead, it is time to go outside. Slowly quit the baths without rinsing yourself, so that your skin keeps the benefits of the onsen or sento.
- Dry yourself with the towel before going back to the lockers to dress up.
- Drink lot of water to hydrate your body.
The onsen / sento experience is fully naked, and certainly not in swimwear. If you are shy, you can keep your towel to hide some body parts while you are on the land and remove it just before going into the water. Japanese people are very comfortable with nudity in this situation, however do not show off! Depending on the composition and the acidity of the water, some baths are "more milky" and therefore offer more intimacy. We should not have to say it, but obviously do not urinate or anything else in the water.
As a gaijin (foreigner), people might look at you, especially if you are blond or red haired. But it will remain discreet and definitely not aggressive. If you are very shy, you might be able to rent a private onsen, ideal for couple or families with kids, but it is quite rare and can be expensive.