For many Western people, the idea of getting naked with friends, family and strangers in order to take a bath is something very foreign. At least where I come from, I don’t usually share bath time with friends! Bathing in Australia is a very private event, with most people only sharing showers as young children. However, in Japan, there is no shame or discomfort in sharing bath water or even bath time with others. This almost certainly will come as a matter of cultural confusion for you, but don’t let that stop you from trying this relaxing experience! Most tourists may start the experience feeling a bit timid, however by the end of the experience you will wonder, like me, why Westerners are so uncomfortable about the human body.
In Japan there are two kinds of bathing experiences that can be had; onsen and sento. In both, the baths are separated by gender, however mixed and private baths exist as well. Most places prohibit tattoos, but some more modern houses will allow it. The experience involves washing and scrubbing your body before soaking in the baths. Onsen are bodies of water that come from a natural hot spring and are often located in scenic rural areas next to active volcanoes. If you choose to visit an onsen, I recommend you stay the night in a traditional Japanese inn, soaking in the waters and eating traditional Japanese set meals.
In contrast, sento are paid public baths with tap water heated by boilers. Sento have had a long history in Japan and came about when the majority of houses in Japan didn’t have any bathing facilities. There are several sento in the neighbourhoods around Tokyo, many in traditional temple style buildings. Whilst numbers of sento have decreased in modern times, “super sento” have been developed, for example Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari- an onsen theme-park. These super sento have a variety of additional facilities such as saunas, open-air baths, games and eating areas. These super sento are a great way to try your first onsen/sento experience in Japan, as they combine something that is familiar to us with something new. You might find that after the initial shock wears off, you will want to spend hours enjoying this relaxing experience!