Sorted, Mate: A Foreigner’s Guide to Japanese Communal Baths

I recently went to a sentō (a Japanese communal bath) for the first time. I went to Funaoka Onsen (‘onsen’ meaning ‘hot spring’ in Japanese, though it’s often just used as a synonym for sentō), in north-western Kyoto. And while it was a fun, relaxing experience, it was sometimes a little confusing. There are some unexplained rules and customs, and as a foreigner it can be difficult to know what you are and aren’t supposed to do. That combined with the fact that few westerners have any experience whatsoever with communal baths means that the whole experience can be something of a trial by fire (or should that be ‘a trial by water’? (no pun intended)). 

Luckily, I navigated this ablutionary minefield so that you don’t have to. Read on for my How To tips on successfully going to a Japanese communal bath with your dignity intact. That’s right – it’s time for another edition of Sorted, Mate.

All the following tips are taken directly from my own experience at Funaoka Onsen, so I think they’ll be especially helpful and applicable to your own first experience, wherever or whenever that may be. However, as most sentō are segregated the applicability of some of these tips will vary based on your gender.

1. DO immediately go into the wrong changing room

If you’re heading for the changing rooms and you see two doors: one with a pink sign and the other with a blue sign, both featuring identical Japanese writing (neither featuring the kanji for man or woman), you may feel some doubt as to which one is the correct changing room for you. If the man at the counter then turns to you and says “Pink is for men” you may start to question him. But it’s extremely important that you just go with it: I did, and I can tell you that that moment of ignorantly stumbling into the wrong changing room is an important foundation for any sentō experience.

2. DO identify the oldest, frailest man in the changing room and fixate on him as a symbol of your own inevitable mortality

In any sentō experience you’ll be sharing the baths with a large number of old men. It’s important that as soon as you enter the (correct) changing room you identify the most existentially terrifying old man and fixate on him for a good couple of minutes. Bonus points if, when you accidentally but inevitably see them while they’re fully undressed, they not only look like they’re falling apart in a very real physical sense, but that their clothes were the only thing ever holding them together in the first place.

It’s very easy to forget, but any good bathing experience should be first and foremost a memento mori.

3. DON’T forget to wash yourself before you get in the baths

Once you’re fully undressed (no swimming trunks allowed) you can make your way into the baths proper. But you’re not supposed to get into the water immediately. Japanese custom is to wash yourself down before getting in the baths, so that no dirt or grime gets into the water. It can be a little difficult to know exactly how to wash yourself properly, but fortunately tip number 4 will sort you out:

4. DO blindly copy what other people do like you’re in some kind of cargo cult

You can bet that the Japanese people using the baths will know what they’re doing. Therefore, the natural solution to most problems you’ll have in the communal baths it to copy whatever it is someone else is doing, even if you can’t fathom the purpose. Are they cleaning themselves in front of a big sink? Why not do that? Are they putting their little towel on their heads when they get in the water? Sounds like a plan. Are they getting into a pool of water without checking how hot it is first? Well…

5. DON’T test the temperature of different pools before you get into them. Are you some kind of wuss or something?

Just get in the water. Just do it. It doesn’t matter that it appears to be literally boiling. All the pools in the sentō are different temperatures. The point is to pick one at random and hope it isn’t hot enough that it melts your dental fillings.

6. DO drop your towel into the water and then pretend like you didn’t

You only get a little towel to dry yourself off with, and you’re supposed to carry it around with you. While you can put it to the side when you get into one of the pools there aren’t many dry places. Most people fold their tiny flannel-like towels and put them on their heads. As this is all new to you you may not be confident that you won’t drop it into the water. Repress that thought.

You will drop your towel into the water at some point. It’s inevitable, and it’s part of the fun. But people will definitely not notice if you quickly flop it back on your head and act like nothing happened, even as the residue water drips down your face.

7. DON’T have a tattoo

Japan has something of a problem with tattoos. Tattoos are still largely linked (at least in the popular consciousness) with the Yakuza – the Japanese mafia, and even foreigners with visible tattoos may be asked to leave certain public establishments. This is especially true in sentō, where every tattoo is a visible tattoo.  

8. DON’T show the guy with the giant, probably-Yakuza back tattoos how nervous he makes you

Remember: Yakuza members are more afraid of you then you are of them. While eye contact is usually seen by Yakuza as a sign of aggression, a big, welcoming smile and a thumbs up do wonders at letting them know you’re not a threat. This is especially applicable in a public bathhouse.

However, if you do think you’re in danger you need to be very careful. Don’t make any loud noises or sudden movements. Stand your ground – if you run away they’ll see you as prey and start the chase. Try to make yourself appear bigger than you are.

9. DO walk into the sauna and immediately sit down on the bare stone bench, no matter how hot it may be

Saunas in sentō are sometimes far, far hotter than the saunas you may be used to in the west. It might even make you feel like you’re going to faint from the heat. The solution to this is to pretend that you’re fine. Sit down and nod at the old man sitting across from you. Try not to think about how the stone bench is searing your flesh. Even after you realise that there are foam pads you’re suppose to sit on keep sitting on the stone as if you meant to do that in the first place. If he chuckles at you under his breath it’s probably because he’s incredibly impressed at your resistance to heat. 

10. DON’T worry. You’ll do just fine.

It can be a little intimidating. Everyone’s naked. You’re naked. But everyone’s in it together, like some kind of naked tontine. You may feel embarrassed, or you might be sure that you’re going to break some delicate rule of propriety, but don’t let that nervousness stop you from experiencing a sentō. It’s a fascinating cross-cultural experience, and so long as you follow these important tips you won’t do anything embarrassing. Or at least you won’t realise that you have, which is very nearly as good.

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