How to Take a Japanese Bath — The Unwritten Rules of Japanese Culture

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Do you know how to take a Japanese bath? If you’re visiting the country, it’s worth knowing a few of the Japanese bathing customs before you arrive. Here are a few pointers. They might surprise you.

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan modern sento

How to Take a Japanese Bath

When my kids were little, my favorite time of the day was bath time. In Japan, bath time is often a family affair, and it was part of Japanese culture that I took to almost immediately. Learning how to take a Japanese bath isn’t hard, but it may follow a pattern you are unfamiliar with.

That said, knowing how to take a Japanese bath will make your time in Japan much more enjoyable. Bathing in Japan is one of the most interesting and relaxing aspects of Japanese life, so listen up!

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The Unwritten Rules of Japanese Culture

Below I explain how to take a Japanese bath, let me first lay out the most important rules.

  • The Japanese tub is for relaxing, not cleaning.
  • The Japanese bathroom is the tub and shower only — the toilet is usually somewhere else.
  • You scrub, wash and rinse yourself before getting into the tub.
  • If you have tattoos, you might not be allowed to soak in many public baths and hot springs. Tattoos are still considered a symbol of the mafia in Japan. This is gradually changing as tattoos become more common among regular Japanese folks, but many places still deny service to anyone who’s inked.

Ok, now let’s break down many of these and get into the details of how to take a Japanese bath.

Tubs and Toilets are Separate

Japanese bathrooms are quite different from those in the West. For one, the toilet is often in a completely different room in most private homes and apartments — the Japanese toilet is often set apart in the hallway or at the bottom of the stairs, while the shower may be on the other side of the apartment. Hotels are different, of course.

Also, the bathing room is often designed for more than one person to bathe at a time. Indeed, sometimes all four of us bathed together. In fact, that is an important family time for many Japanese families — especially when the kids are little. It doesn’t happen that much now that we’re in Spain.

In Japan, it’s not uncommon for several of us to be bathing & showering at the same time. It’s like a family meeting — with shampoo. If they ever want to stop that’s perfectly fine. However, bath time can be a really special moment as a parent.

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan sento water sento wall mural sento 2

Bathing Customs for How to Take a Japanese Bath

Most Japanese bathe at night, usually right before bed. The day is over and the kids are getting sleepy. Combine this with the warmth and the sound of running water and it often unlocks a door in a child’s mind. They talk with less inhibition and ask questions then that I might not hear otherwise. Since we’ve been in Spain and don’t have a Japanese bathroom of our own, those moments are rare. I miss them.

If you’re visiting Japan with kids, then it’s a good thing to know how to take a Japanese bath. Whether you’re bathing at a Japanese person’s home, or visiting a traditional hot spring, review this list of Japanese bathing customs and you might avoid an embarrassing moment.

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan sento water

Japanese Bathing Vocabulary

If you want to know how to take a Japanese bath, you might want some Japanese bathing vocabulary. Here are a few Japanese bathing terms you might want to be familiar with.

Onsen (温泉)

This is the Japanese hot springs, indoor and outdoor tubs filled with geothermally heated water. Sometimes it’s pumped in, while other times it reaches the surface naturally. Some onsen water has unique minerals of other elements believed to aid in health in one way or another.

Ryokan (旅館)

This is the traditional Japanese inn. Many ryokan are built on or near the site of the source of an onsen’s water.

Rotenburo (露天風呂)

This is an outdoor hot spring. Our favorite, especially in winter. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s something magical about sitting in geothermally heated water up to your neck while snow gently falls around you.

Sento (銭湯)

This is the public bath. Long before people had their own running water, public baths were where everyone went to wash up, relax and meet with neighbors. There are still many sento around the country, although their numbers are dwindling.

Ofuro (お風呂) 

This is the general term for the bathroom or bathing area. Japanese bathtubs differ greatly from what most Westerners are familiar with. The tub I grew up with in the USA was long and shallow. I could stretch my legs out, but the water only came up to my waist unless I overfilled it and then sunk down.

The Japanese Tub

How to Take a Japanese Bath — The Unwritten Rules of Japanese Culture

The Japanese tub is designed put all but the head underwater. It’s much shorter but also deeper. You sit inside a Japanese tub with your knees bent, with the water coming up to your shoulders.

These tubs often have special heaters that keep the water at or near a specific temperature. Most homes also have a tub cover to keep the water warm for the next person. Yes, you share the water. No need to drain the tub and refill after one person. Most Japanese families reuse the same bath water. Don’t worry, it’s not gross. More on that below.

Taking a Bath in Japan: A Step by Step Guide

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan onsen male female dressing rooms

Whether it’s in a fancy onsen, a local sento, or the home of a Japanese friend, the steps for bathing in Japan are essentially the same. The below instructions deal with how to take a Japanese bath in all three scenarios.

STEP ONE: The entrance

Step into the changing room. If you’re at someone’s home, then this is usually an adjoining room where a sink and mirror are. Possibly the washing machine, too.

If you’re at an onsen or sento, you’ll probably see two entrances to changing rooms. Most onsen and sento are split by gender, so be careful which room you walk into! There are usually curtains (noren/暖簾) hanging over the doors. For men, the curtain is usually blue. For women, it’s usually red. If in doubt, look for the kanji characters for male (男) and female (女).

Be aware that some hot spring hotels and resorts switch the bathing spaces regularly. The male and female bathing spaces may be different the next time you visit.

Children under 5 or 6 can go in either room with a parent or guardian. Some changing rooms have toilets. Others do not. If you’re taking a Japanese bath with kids, it’s best for everyone to relieve themselves before arriving.

It’s also a good idea to guzzle some water before taking a Japanese bath. It’s hot in there, and you’ll definitely be sweating quite a bit. This goes double for kiddos.

STEP TWO: The strip-down

If you’re in a private home, you’ll probably just set your clothes down somewhere in the room and go straight into the shower, so skip to step three.

If you’re at a sento, ryokan or onsen, then leave your shoes/sleepers at the door. No footwear inside the changing room.

Take off all your clothes and place them into the baskets or lockers provided. That means jewelry, too. There are natural minerals in some onsen water that will tarnish precious metals. I’d take your glasses off, too. You won’t be able to see anyway — they’ll steam up. Lockers often have a key on a wristband. You can wear the key on your arm or ankle.

There also may be small hand towels provided. You can bring these to wash your body, or just to cover your privates as you walk around. Just remember that you are not supposed to put towels in the tub. And don’t bring a large towel into the bathing area. There will be no place to put it.

How to Take a Japanese Bath — The Unwritten Rules of Japanese Culture capsule hotel

STEP THREE: The Wash

If you’re in a home, you’ll now step into a sealed room with a shower nozzle, a stool, and a tub. If you’re the guest at a Japanese home, the tub may already be filled and covered to keep it warm. Don’t get in the tub yet. Shower yourself fully and rinse all the soap off first. You should already be clean before you get in the tub.

If you’re in a sento or onsen, step into the bathing area and walk straight to the showers. The floor is probably wet, so make sure kiddo walks slowly and purposefully so they don’t slip.

These may be standing showers, but they’re more likely to be sit-down spaces with small stools made of plastic or wood. Same goes for private residences.

The water pressure on these shower nozzles is often really powerful. This feels great, but if you don’t hold it well, it could get out of control. Hold it firmly when you turn it on.

Rinse first, soak after

Wash and rinse your entire body before getting in the tub. Kids, too. Soap and shampoo are usually provided at Ryokan, but not at a sento. Bring your own if unsure. Sometimes you’ll also find other things like scrubbers and shaving razors.

You may see some locals not bathe fully before getting in. They may just pour a bucket of water over their crotch and then step into the water. This is sometimes acceptable, but it’s better to bathe completely before getting in the water.

Sometimes there are no showers — just buckets of water. If that’s the case, then go with the flow and do what the others do. However, remember that the water you’re washing with should never go into the onsen itself. That may mean squatting while you wash so the water doesn’t splatter onto others or into the onsen.

STEP FOUR: The soak

Once you’ve washed up, it’s now time for a soak. Check the temperature of the tub/tubs before you step in. Sometimes the water in these is ridiculously hot. The average temperature is around 37-40ºC/98-104ºF, but they get much hotter. We’re used to it and enjoy it, but after my mom visited us once she joked that I was “guilty of child abuse” by subjecting her precious grandchildren to such heat.

Some places have several tubs at different temperature levels. If you’re not used to super-hot tubs, start with the lower-temperature tubs and work your way up. Or not. It’s up to you. This is supposed to be relaxing, after all!

Step in slowly. If you and kiddo want to try the hotter tubs, the key is getting in gradually.

Speaking of relaxing, this is not a place for play. People will chat and laugh, but it’s considered rude to jump, splash or swim here. Make sure the kids understand this. It might mean that you don’t get to stay and relax as long as you’d like. When my boy was young, the only way I could keep him in the onsen area was to switch tubs every five minutes or so.

You can bring the hand towel I mention into the tub with you if there’s no soap on it. Some people will use the towel to cover their privates as they walk. Others will soak the towel in hot water and place it on their heads while they’re in the tub.

STEP FIVE: Enjoy

From here’s it’s up to you. My kids and I like to move from tub to tub. Then sometimes we go scrub down again at the showers and then rinse off and start the entire process over again.

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan sento water sento wall mural

The Japanese Toilet

How to Take a Japanese Bath — A Guide to Japanese Toilets and Bathing Customs in Japan Japanese tub Japanese toilet faucet control panel

Everyone loves to ooh and ah over the Japanese toilet, but all the buttons on the side aren’t that necessary or important. The most useful ones are self-explanatory. The one that looks like water spraying is a butt washer. If the button is pink, it’s probably the bidet. The up and down buttons are for water pressure, water temperature or position of the water nozzle.

Also worth mentioning is the fountain on top of most toilets. This is often where you wash your hands after using the toilet. To many Westerners (including me) the first time they see this is jarring. Am I supposed to wash my hands with water coming out of the toilet? The truth is that the water is no coming out of the toilet, it’s going in.

It’s a faucet like any other, and it literally saves tons of water every year. Toilets fill with water every time you flush, so why not wash your hands with that tap water?

Then there is the old-school squatter toilet. If you need help with this then look up instructions on your own. This post is about how to bathe in Japan and I don’t want to get sidetracked with proper pooping posture.

Now you know how to take a Japanese bath!

Congratulations. You and the kiddos now know how to take a Japanese bath. You can now relax and enjoy a soak without any awkward fumbling around. Now that you know how to take bath in Japan, you may want to try it back home!

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Comments

  1. Hi Jason, Your blog came up when I was searching for something related to bath and ofuro. I work for a company that build wooden tubs. Reading your very comprehensive post reminds me of the time years ago when I was first staying in a hotel that ONLY had a communal Japanese bath. I actually started crying and had to call my mother because I really did not want to go in! These days I am still a reluctant onsen visitor but I do have one strategy – if you do not want to bathe with a lot of other people do the slipper test. If there are several pairs of hotel slippers at the entrance of the bathroom then you know it will be full inside, if not, the coast is clear, at least until you are inside. Mornings are usually emptier especially at 8 or 9 as others will be having breakfast.
    I hope your article helps families travelling to Japan!

  2. Hello,

    I am going to Takaragawa Onsen in January, and I am curious to try out the mixed bath tubs that you’ve mentioned in a different post. I was wondering if I can/should bring a towel with me (and if it is acceptable to wear it in the outdoor baths?). I am a woman in my early twenties and I will be going alone. Any advice would be appreciated!

    In addition, I was wondering if you have ever checked out the Jikokudani Yaen-Koen snow monkey park in Nagano? I hope to visit the snow monkey park before heading to Takaragawa. If you have experience using JR lines or public transport on this route, I would love some insight.

    Best,
    Q

    • Yes, it’s accepted to wear a towel in the outdoor bath of Takaragawa’s mixed onsen. If you are staying there overnight, you will be given a yukata to cover yourself. If not, you will need your own towel. You can rent both bath towel and face towel for a small fee at the site, but the size and the condition may not be what you want. It’s best to bring your own. Remember to bring two bath towels – one for cover, another for drying. I’m male so I don’t notice anyone looking at me. However, the unfortunate truth is that younger female visitors may feel some eyes even though most people are there to enjoy bathing itself. Be warned that some men, especially old ones, walk around without hiding anything. They just don’t care anymore

      As for Jigokudani, I’ve never been there, but a quick google search shows that there’s limited access by public transportation. Best to check the official guide. Bus times at time of writing that are suitable to visit the park from Nodanaka to Kanbayashi station (9:33, 10:38, 12:00, 13:40) and return to Nodanaka from Kanbayashi (11:08, 12:30, 14:10, 16:28) to catch the train back to Tokyo. That’s pretty limited. You’ll need to plan accordingly if you only depend on public transportation. Taxis will be available, but I am not sure how easy it is to get those. It’s a very touristy area nowadays so it may be easier than I assume. Hope you have a great time! I would love to hear your experience!

  3. My first experience with bathing in Japan was at a sento. Made a new friend and the guy even invited me home for dinner with his family. Incredible experience.

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