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The art of communal bathing: A beginner’s guide to Japan’s onsen and sento

The art of communal bathing: A beginner’s guide to Japan’s onsen and sento

More than just a routine: An introduction to Japan’s communal bathing culture

For thousands of years, communal bathing has not just been an age-old tradition, but also an integral aspect of the Japanese way of life. More than just the cleansing of the physical body, the act of bathing holds a significance akin to the cleansing of the spiritual body. In Japan, public baths are most prominently classified into two main categories namely onsen (温泉) and sento (銭湯).

 

While the culture of communal bathing in onsen has roots dating back to the earliest recorded history in Japan, with feudal lords (大名 daimyo) and samurai (侍) having indulged in these invigorating natural baths known for their therapeutic properties, sento, on the other hand, can be traced back to the Nara Period (奈良時代 Nara Jidai), where they were initially employed as a cleansing ritual by Buddhist priests. This practice drew crowds to temples and evolved over time into a widely popularized form of spiritual healing, emphasizing the casting off the seven ailments outlined in Buddhist teachings.

 

What is the main difference between onsen and sento?

A dip in an onsen is a treat after a long day of sightseeing! (Image credit: ©︎Akita Fun)

 

While fundamentally public baths, onsen and sento are distinctly different, with the distinguishing factor being the nature of the water. 

 

For a public bath to be classified as an onsen, the underground water source must either naturally reach a temperature of at least 25°C, or satisfy one of the 19 criteria linked to the mineral composition of the water, including having substantial quantities of natural additives from a specified list. 

 

On the other hand, sento, which only started gaining popularity in the post-war era, are bathing facilities that utilise artificially-constructed bathtubs and hot water from taps. These establishments were built to meet the practical hygienic needs of the people, who at that time, lacked bathing facilities in their own homes. 

 

While onsen boast pure, unaltered natural hot spring waters that are usually packed with minerals such as sulfur or iron, sento often include additional elements like medicinal baths or kusuriyu (薬湯). Certain sento go a step further by providing seasonal baths that incorporate fruits such as yuzu or apples corresponding to the time of the year, offering a unique way to embrace the changing seasons.

 

Bath house in Japan with mural of Mount Fuji

A typical sento bathhouse in your Japanese neighbourhood has a mural of Mount Fuji for people to relax and enjoy the “view”. (Image credit: Sayama / Pixabay)

 

The disparity in the nature of the water being used in these two types of public baths, naturally means that the locations of these baths are also distinctly different. Onsen, dependent on natural underground activity and geothermal energy, are thus typically situated in rural areas or near mountainous regions, and are usually found together with ryokan (旅館) located in the outskirts of cities, providing people with a convenient day trip option for a quick getaway from the hectic city life. 

 

Contrastingly, sento are situated in urban areas, offering convenience for city dwellers to access easily. It is thus not uncommon to see locals gathering at their neighbourhood sento after a hard day of work, seeking relaxation and the opportunity to catch up with one another.

 

How much can you expect to pay for a bath?

Snow and onsen, the perfect winter relaxation combination. (Image credit: ©︎iStock) 

 

The difference in location, facilities, and bathwater quality inherently reflect variations in the price range one can anticipate for both types of public baths. For those seeking to solely enjoy the onsen experience, a day onsen option is available, with costs ranging from approximately ¥500–¥2,500 for the bath. Additional charges may apply should you opt for other services. 

 

If you want the full traditional experience of staying in a ryokan with a private onsen, be ready to fork out at least around ¥20,000 per night. With that said, rest assured that the cost will be justified by the serene and pleasant private onsen experience, coupled with the quintessential Japan hospitality known as omotenashi (お持てなし). 

 

Conversely, entries to sento are usually cheaper and typically range from around ¥350–¥500 per entry, depending on the facilities provided.

 

Recommended onsen spots and sento facilities

The idea of communal bathing in hot springs may be daunting to some of us, but worry not—here are some popular onsen and sento spots to explore during Japan this winter, as well as basic etiquettes to take note of!

 

Tsurunoyu Onsen (鶴の湯温泉)

One of the most popular open-air baths, or rotenburo (露天風呂) in Tsurunoyu Onsen, features a chalky bluish white hot spring water. (Image credit: ©︎Akita Fun)

 

Named after a hunter witnessing a crane (鶴 tsuru) tending to its wounds in the spring, Tsurunoyu Onsen stands as one of the most renowned and oldest hot spring baths in the Nyuto Onsen Town (乳頭温泉郷 Nyuto Onsen Kyo) in Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken). It features four distinct hot spring sources on its premises, encompassing white hot springs and black hot springs, each delivering unique spring qualities and therapeutic benefits.

 

Tsurunoyu Onsen (鶴の湯温泉)
Address: 50 Sentatsuzawa National Forest, Tazawako, Semboku-shi, Akita 014-1204 
Nearest station: JR Tazawako Station (JR田沢湖駅)
Access: Take the regular bus bound for Nyuto Onsen (乳頭温泉) and alight at Alpa Komakusa (アルパこまくさ) bus stop, where there will be a free shuttle bus service to Tsurunoyu Onsen. Do take note to call Tsurunoyu Onsen and inform the staff of which bus you will be on before boarding the bus. 
Opening hours (Day trip use): 10:00~15:00 (Outdoor baths are closed for cleaning on Mondays)
Admission fee: ¥700 (Adults), ¥300 (Children) 
TEL: +81 187-46-2139

 

Dogo Onsen (道後温泉)

The majestic exterior of Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest existing onsens in Japan with a history of over 3,000 years and which has been featured in ancient Japanese texts. (Image credit: ©︎Adobe Stock)

 

Gaining widespread fame as the inspiration behind Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed film, “Spirited Away”, Dogo Onsen, located in Ehime Prefecture (愛媛県 Ehime-ken) of Shikoku, stands as one of Japan’s oldest operational hot springs. In addition to attracting tourists, it is also a destination regularly visited by members of the Imperial Family. 

 

Constructed in 1894 during the Meiji Period (明治時代 Meiji Jidai), the Dogo Onsen Honkan (道後温泉本館) remains the main attraction, renowned for its wooden interior and the incorporation of the finest available granite for its luxurious baths. Do note that ongoing conservation and repair work that began in 2019, have led to the closure of the second and third floors of the Honkan. However, the bath on the first floor remains open to the public.

 

Dogo Onsen (道後温泉)
Address: 4-30 Dogo Yuno-machi, Matsuyama City, Ehime 790-0842
Nearest station: Dogo Onsen Station (道後温泉駅)
Access: 4-minute walk from the nearest train station
Opening hours: 06:00–23:00 (Last admission: 22:30)
Admission fee: ¥460 (Adults), ¥160 (Children) 
TEL: +81 89-921-5141

 

Zao Onsen (蔵王温泉)

Zao Onsen, tucked away in the mountains of northeastern Japan and famous for especially acidic hot springs, also known as “beauty water”. (Image credit: ©︎Yamagata Kanko)

 

Nestled in the volcanic mountains of Zao (蔵王) in Yamagata Prefecture (山形県 Yamagata-ken), the hot spring baths of Zao Onsen are known for their highly acidic waters, believed to offer therapeutic benefits for conditions such as muscle aches and even high cholesterol. The hot spring waters of Zao are not only recognised for their therapeutic properties, but also renowned for their beautifying effects. During winter, you can indulge in a soothing and rejuvenating soak after a tiring day of skiing and, letting the baths wash away your fatigue. 

 

Zao Onsen (蔵王温泉) 
Address: 708-1 Zao Onsen, Yamagata-shi, Yamagata 990-2301
Nearest Station: JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅)
Access: From JR Yamagata Station (JR 山形駅), take a bus bound for Zao Onsen (approximately 40 mins, ¥1,000)
Opening hours: 06:00–22:00 (Please note that hours differ slightly for the various baths, and that the Zao Dai-Rotemburo (蔵王温泉大露天風呂) is closed during winter from late November to April)
Admission fee: ¥200 (Adults, ¥100 (Children) (Note: Additional fee is required for various baths)
TEL: +81 23-694-9328

 

Hakusan-yu Takatsuji Sento

08 Hakusan Yu.jpg (848 KB)

Hakusan-yu is a retro sento nestled in the city centre, making it accessible to people of all age groups. (Image credit: Momo Toyoda)

 

Situated in the quaint streets of Funayacho (船屋町) in Kyoto (京都府 Kyoto-fu), Hakusan-yu is a local neighbourhood bathhouse that is not only affordable, but also provides an opportunity to experience and observe the integral role sentos play in the daily lives of the Japanese. Equipped with water massages and electric baths, this traditional bath house offers the perfect setting for an evening soak, allowing you to mingle with locals of all ages.

 

Hakusan-yu Takatsuji (白山湯高辻) 
Address: 665 Funayacho, Shimogyo Ward, Kyoto, 600-8466
Nearest station: Shijo Station (四条駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Shijo Station
Opening hours:

Weekdays: 15:00–24:00
Saturdays: Closed
Sundays: 07:00–24:00

Admission fee: ¥450 (Adults), ¥60–150 (Children)
TEL: +81 75-351-3648

 

Kyoto Tama-no-yu Sento

As one of the oldest bath houses in Kyoto, Tama-no-yu not only welcomes guests with its adorable doorway curtain (のれん Noren), but also a wide variety of baths for guests to explore. (Image credit: ©︎Momo Toyoda)

 

Founded in 1949 during the Showa Period (昭和時代 Showa Jidai), this traditional bathhouse features remarkable mosaic murals in both the men's and women’s baths. Additionally, it boasts superior water quality sourced from natural spring water, which is said to be beneficial for allergies. Furthermore, the establishment provides a diverse range of baths, including medicinal and herbal baths, along with a jet bath, allowing you to explore and discover the bath that suits your preferences the most. 

 

Kyoto Tama-no-yu (京都 玉の湯) 
Address: 401 Kameya-cho, Nishi-iru, Gokomachi, Oshikoji, Nakagyoku, Kyoto 604-0941
Nearest station: Kyoto Shiyakushi-mae Station (京都市役所前駅)
Access: A 7-minute walk from Kyoto Shiyakusho-mae Station
Opening hours: 15:00–24:00 (Closed on Sundays)
Admission fee: ¥490 (Adults), ¥60–150 (Children)
TEL: +81 75-231-2985

 

Basic etiquette: How to use onsen and sento 

Never dip your towel into the bath! (Image credit: ©︎Adobe Stock)

 

Before indulging yourself in a relaxing soak in public baths, it is highly recommended to familiarise yourself with some onsen and sento etiquettes to ensure the most rewarding experience. 

  1. Before entering the baths, make sure to thoroughly scrub and wash your body
  2. Large towels are typically not permitted in the baths. However, small towels are allowed for the purpose of keeping your hair in place.
  3. If you have long hair, make sure to keep it tied up and out of the bathwater
  4. Do not swim or make big splashes in the baths
  5. Remove jewellery and other accessories, including watches, as the mineral-rich waters may cause discolouration.

 

It is also important to be aware that tattoos are traditionally prohibited in communal baths due to their historical association with yakuza. While some facilities and onsen towns have become more lenient towards tattooed-guests in recent times—with some offering even patches to cover up tattoos—most establishments still turn away individuals with large, visible tattoos. 

 

Nevertheless, this does not mean that you will miss out on an incredible public bath experience. Instead, it provides an opportunity to enjoy the entire bath in a private onsen setting.

 

Conclusion: Be respectful, and don’t be shy!

While being stark naked in front of strangers and engaging in a foreign custom might initially feel intimidating, I assure you that the experience will be nothing short of rewarding once you step into these baths and allow the soothing heat to wash away your worries. For those traveling to Japan this winter season, be sure to visit any onsen and sento along the way to have a glimpse of the Japanese way of life. 

 

Header image credit: ©︎iStock 

 

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