Public Baths and Onsens – Embracing the Birthday Suit

The capsule hotel we stayed at used to be for men only, which means they currently do not have showers for women. Instead, women are encouraged to check out the public bath, a sento, down the street. Having frequented several public baths, Matt assured me that there would be soap and shampoo. So I took off, not quite sure of what to expect and more than a bit terrified about having to shimmy down to the birthday suit to enjoy the hot baths with all the other women.

Japan is not really a tourist-friendly country (it’s hard to come by any English) and unfortunately, the woman behind the counter spoke no English and I speak no Japanese. Even though Matt tried to walk me through all that I must do beforehand, I still managed to make a few blunders at my hot bath experience.

I didn’t take my shoes off soon enough. The Japanese are fastidious about their shoe-wearing. There are outdoor shoes, shoes to be worn around the house, and different shoes to be worn in the bathroom. Heaven forbid you wear the wrong shoes in the wrong area (they supply the indoor shoes). At the capsule hotel I was scolded for walking around in my socks; you must wear shoes! Generally you remove your shoes at the entrance of a capsule hotel or sento, especially if there is a step up. I was new in town and missed the memo. A light scolding ensued.

Upon entering the baths, I made a beeline for the washing area, a wall lined with mirrors, little stools for sitting, buckets to fill with water, and shower heads about three feet high. Before entering the hot baths you must be clean! I searched around for the soap and excitedly zoned in on a bucket full of some particularly nice soaps and shampoos. Thinking nothing of it, I began to pick through my options. A moment later, an old Japanese woman sporting her birthday suite was at my side. Another light scolding ensued as she clearly communicated that that was her soap and her wash station! Woops!

Humiliated for having pilfered through her soap, I was even more dejected to discover that there was in fact no public soap. I looked longingly at the hot baths, wondering what the old women would do if I entered without being sparkly clean first. Not wanting to find out, I chalked up my time there as an awkward learning experience and vowed to henceforth always be armed with soap.

A week later, we traveled to Beppu, which is famous for its hot sulfur springs – think Yellowstone National Park. We checked out a mud onsen, which some famous Japanese author compared to entering hell. There were several different baths filled with different types of mud. I was expecting some grimy mud pit that smelled like rotten eggs. On the contrary, the mud was viscous and flowy and the smell – while lingering – was not as repulsive as I’d thought. This happened to be a mixed onsen, which meant men and women shared the same area; however, there was a wooden bar that separated the two sides of the pit. The women had their own private and gradual entrance to the mud bath so they were already neck high in the muddy waters before arriving at the “mixed” area.

Unfortunately, men are not afforded this same level of privacy and they just enter the mixed area without their own entrance (women workers frequently clean urinals while men are using them and when walking past the men’s bathroom at a park, the entrance is usually completely open). While the men walked around with small towels to maintain some form of privacy, they were quite carefree and very haphazard with the use of these towels.

It’s amazing to ponder how natural it is for this culture (and a few of the European ones we traveled through) to be nude in the presence of the opposite sex in the public hot bath setting. There is nothing sexual about it. Yes, I was certainly uncomfortable, but I admired the fact that being nude didn’t have to be shameful, exotic, or sensual. I didn’t have to worry about creepers, because this wasn’t India or the USA.


Ali Berry

May 28th, 2012

Your openness is so refreshing! Haha thanks for sharing!! 🙂


June 9th, 2012

What? No pictures?

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