Thursday, May 1, 2014

Practical guide to Japanese hot springs & baths - onsen & sento

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You've probably read or heard about Japanese bathing culture. Everything is true. You enter the hot bath naked and there can be other naked people as well. But most guides won't tell you one secret - you can actually bath all by yourself or with your partner (or anyone you wish ;)).

Types of bath

There are two basic types of baths: sentō and onsen. Sentō is a public bath and the water is just a reagular heated up tap water. Onsen on the other hand uses natural mineral water that is usually cooled down. Onsen usually has more facilities and serves more like a spa.

Mixed bath

You won't find many mixed baths nowadays. However natural onsens with no facilities are considered mixed and bathing in one of those can be a great experience. BTW if you are a man, find a public mixed bath and you think it might be a great idea to go there with your spouse/girlfriend, so do the other male occupants there (about your companion).

Separate sexes bath

By far the most common type of bath. Probably every bath has it. There's a large public area for men and separate area for women. Usually they are exactly the same size and shape. There will be a small shower area with a number of seats available.

Family bath

For some reason most of the guides won't give you information about one of the best options and that is a family bath (try asking for private room in English or kazokuburo). Family bath is usually more expensive, but you get your own room with your own bath or a big tub. They often have the best views as well. And it's not just for shy people or couples and families, having your own space is simply more comfortable.

How to use the bath

Usually you pay first in the bath house. You will get a key to a locker (or electronic tag) and sometimes there are special lockers for shoes. As everywhere in Japan, take you shoes off first and either lock them or place them in a shoe rack. Nobody will steal shoes in Japan, so don't worry. Often you have to remove your shoes even before you pay, right at the entrance.

Every time when there is a separate area for men and women, the Japanese use blue color for men and red for women. Look for little curtains. They lead to a locker area, where you are supposed to take off all your clothes. If you rented the family room, somebody will show you the way.

Most onsens provide towels for free, but sometimes not. But they will have an option to "rent" one. Take only a small onsen towel to the bath (it's long, but small).

After the lockers, there's usually a shower area that looks like this in both public bath and family onsen.

Shower area in family room

Shower gel, shampoo and sometimes conditioner are provided. The old school way is to use the bucket, but most of the baths will have showers. You should enter the bath clean with no soap. And remember, you must be naked.

Family room private bath

The bath is usually very hot, above 40°C. Be careful if you are not used to it, I've experienced people fainting in the heat.

Take shower after the bath as well. The mineral water can benefit the skin, but you probably don't want to keep the minerals on your skin for too long.

Where to find those baths?

Well, they are everywhere in Japan. Most hotels will have a public bath too. In capsule hotels, this might be the only available bath and the same is true for small inns (ryokan) all over Japan.

You can use this handy locator to find onsens in your area, but the best way is to ask at a local information counter. Every bigger train station will have one and the staff usually speaks English!

Souvenirs

Japanese often bring home omiyage, a small souvenir from the travels. Onsens are a great place to get those!

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