Chances are if you’re in Japan you’ll hear of Onsens and Sentōs. Unsure of what the difference between them is? Not sure if you really do need to be naked? This article will tell you everything you need to know.
Onsens (温泉 in Japanese) are usually found on higher grounds as they are supposed to be volcanic springs, or hot springs, which are naturally boosted with rich minerals. Many are also famous tourist attractions that boast scenic views. There are even ‘onsen-towns’ such as Kinosaki Onsen, which are basically conglomerations of onsens.
Sentōs (銭湯 in Japanese), on the other hand, are public bathhouses that vary greatly in size, quality and location, and may or may not have an outdoor area — let alone a view of any landscape. Google images may present you with some that look more like small indoor swimming pools, but there are also more luxurious sentōs with settings that mimic that of a traditional onsen and use higher quality bathwaters. If you’re looking for an affordable and high-quality sentō, one sentō chain that I frequent and highly recommend is Ofuro no Osama (meaning King of Baths) which operates in several parts of Tokyo. (No, I’m not paid to recommend this place!)
Things to bring along
You’ll need to bring along some items before entering an onsen or sentō:
- Your birthday suit — yes, you are to going to be naked.
- Money — cash would be a safer choice especially in less urbanised areas. Basic entry to onsens and sentōs typically cost around 500 yen (£3.60) and rarely more than 1000 yen (£7.25). You might, however, want to bring more if you are keen for a massage or exfoliation. Based on my experience, a rough estimate for a massage would be 3000-5000 yen (£21-£36) depending on the duration and/or treatment areas.
- Small towel
- Set of clothes
- Hair-tie — for those with hair longer than their chins.
- Beauty products — optional; onsens and sentōs usually provide shampoos and body soaps.
What to expect
Those planning to fit a visit to the onsen or sentō into their itineraries will be glad to hear that they usually operate throughout the day, usually starting from one to two hours before 12pm, ’til one to two hours before 12am. In fact, you can even plan an entire day at the onsen or sentō as most do not have a time limit and have other facilities or services besides baths. On the other hand, for those who are short of time, I personally recommend visiting around an hour before sunset (for the best scenic view), or at night (when the air is cool).
Upon entering, you will be directed to the main bathing area, either by signs or staff. You will then be faced with two choices:
Choose your conventional gender (sorry, gender neutrals) and head on to the locker area, where you’ll be greeted by several naked customers who are also getting ready to enter the baths.
For those who haven’t been to places where you have to be publicly naked, you might feel a little shy or daunted at first (I know I was), but you’ll get used to it after a few minutes when you realise that everyone is just as naked as you are.
Before soaking in the bath(s)
First of all, leave all your belongings and clothes in the lockers provided. You won’t be allowed to bring anything into the baths except for a small towel (which isn’t allowed to touch the bath waters). You may either use the towel to keep your hair up, or some locals like to leave a cool, wet towel on their foreheads while soaking in the hot bath.
Beyond the locker area, there is usually a communal showering area with a few below-the-waist walls equipped with showering units. At each showering unit, you will usually see a stool and a set of shampoo, body soap and sometimes conditioner. Yes, the Japanese usually shower while sitting on stools. I haven’t come across an onsen or sentō with standing shower stalls. And yes, you must shower before entering any baths.
Secondly, do not stand when showering even if you’re not used to sitting on stools to clean yourself because, as mentioned, the walls are low. So, if you do stand when showering, you’ll literally be looking down at the person showering on the opposite side of the wall and having all your shower water drizzled down on those sitting around you. This will not be at all appreciated or welcomed.
Lastly, for those with long hair, make sure that your hair is tied up neatly (if possible, in a bun) so as to avoid clogging the baths with fallen hairs. I like to put a leave-in hair mask while enjoying a good bath.
Types of baths
There are sometimes both indoor and outdoor baths, mainly applicable to bigger onsens and sentōs. I personally find indoor baths a little too stuffy after a while since the heat is enclosed in a limited space. Being in an onsen or sentō is much more enjoyable out in the cool Japanese air. While this is not so common in onsens, sentōs — being man-made bathhouses — usually have a variety of bath types, from Jacuzzis to carbonated baths.
Upon entering the bath(s)
If you are not of East-Asian descent, the chances of your naked body getting a once-over by the locals can be pretty high, especially in rural/non-touristy areas of Japan. It is pretty normal to be curious about the bodies of persons whose race or ethnicity is different from your own, so try not to feel offended. They are by no means being racist and would usually look away after a quick glance. Of course, if it is your first time being naked in a public area with other naked bodies, try not to stare either.
I feel like I don’t have to say this as I believe we are all civilised individuals but I’ll say it just in case: please do not pee, or release other undesirable substances, in the bath. Please. I know hot spring baths are supposed to be detoxifying but please, don’t.
After the bath(s)
There is no need to shower again after using the baths as the waters are clean and filled with minerals that are said to be good for your skin. After getting dressed, you can head to the lounge area (some small sentōs may not have this) to take a good nap, watch the television or grab a snack – facilities and services available differ at each onsen or sentō. As mentioned earlier, there is usually no limit to the amount of time that you can spend at onsens and sentōs, so you can even choose to enter the baths again later!
Looking out for discounts
In the few onsens and sentōs that I’ve visited, there are usually options for purchasing entry tickets in sets of 10 or more. This can be something to look out for if you’re travelling in a large group or planning to visit the onsen or sentō often. Besides group discounts, you should also look out for discounted entry fees during certain days of the week.
In addition, some onsens and sentōs, especially those that operate as chains, offer memberships. This is perfect for anyone staying in Japan for a lengthier period and live near to an onsen or sentō. For those on short vacations, it would be great if you can get your hands on a membership card, perhaps from a friend or host, as they usually come with discounts, not only on the entry fee, but also on other services like massages and more.
More things to note
People with tattoos are usually not allowed into onsens and sentōs due to their association with gangs and illegal organisations in Japan. However, I believe that they will be more lenient to obscure tattoos, for example, on fingers or behind the ears. I mean, it is quite difficult to associate a tiny smiley face tattoo to gangs, right? Nevertheless, do not be too shocked if you do get rejected from entering the onsen or sentō.
In the event that you do get rejected from entering an onsen or sentō but still seek the experience, you may consider staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) which provides rooms with private onsens.
So there you have it. Nakedness, seated showering, relaxing baths — the ultimate soaking experience.
Featured image via ainoko