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Help! Do you take all your clothes off in Japanese baths??!

Help! Do you take all your clothes off in Japanese baths??!

Oct 28th, 2003, 12:15 AM
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Help! Do you take all your clothes off in Japanese baths??!


After much planning on our RTW trip, we're finally off on Saturday. We have a week in Japan to begin with and I have a few questions.

I understand the principle of washing before you enter the baths, but can this be done in private, and afterwards when you bathe, what do you wear?

Hope this isn't too ignorant, but I'm bashful!


Sonia is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 01:25 AM
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Bonjour Sonia,

In a traditional bath, the cardinal rules are that you don't put soap in the tub, and you don't wear any clothes either.

Gender are separated in almost all public baths, and you're supposed to use only a tiny towel (called a tenugui) to hide your private parts while you move from the washing place to the bath tub itself. This towel should not go into the water, which is why you can see picture of happy bathers wearing it on their head.

Some public baths in spas ("onsen") allow the wearing of a swimsuit in their bath area, although it is not the prevalent custom for the Japanese, who see nothing wrong to be naked in those circumstances.

Florence is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 02:38 AM
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Bonjour Florence

I was hoping you'd reply to this post! You're comments have been so helpful in our planning, thank you.

On your recommendation we are stayin at the Asakusa Shigetsu. I understand you have to book times for the bath there. Do you know if it acceptable for a couple to bathe in private together?

Many thanks

Sonia is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 04:01 AM
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As far as I know, it is quite common for a whole family to share the bath. I don't know about the Shigetsu, but I've seen it done in many other inns who advertise "private use of a common bath".
Florence is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 04:35 AM
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Hi Sonia,

I was at the Shigetsu about a year ago for about a week. We loved the place. Being Americans, we tended to take a shower in our rooms in the morning and some of us soaked in the tub in the evenings. I am not absolutely positive, but I think there was a separate bath on the top floor for men and women. I surely didn't book times for the bath.

I must of used it five or six times around 9 PM usually and I never saw anyone else and I was in there for at least half an hour or so.

Between my sister's families and parents, we had a group of 12 and some didn't like the "public" baths. So in some of the onsens that we stayed where there was no shower in the rooms, the onsens graciously put a sign on the door requesting others to stay out when people who wanted privacy were using it. I'm sure most places will do that for you.

Enjoy the trip, Asakusa is a great place to stay and just burabura (stroll around). If you like to run, I had a great time getting out early and taking off in a different direction each day from Shigetsu. It is amazing how far into Tokyo you get there.

Tsutomu is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 07:30 AM
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I think Florence has covered most of the bathing etiquette. Just a quick note about privacy in the baths: hotels like the Shigetsu often have a large foreign clientele who tend to be bashful as well. As a result, if some foreign clients may wait to use the bath while someone else is in it. On my trip, my husband (who is extremely bashful!) would often wait 30 minutes for the bath to clear out. My point is that since you may be sharing the bath with other foreigners, chances are they may want to "take turns" as much as you do. I wasn't nervous of sharing the bath but never did encounter anyone in all my soaking adventures....

Have fun. I love Japan. The Shigetsu is also really great.
kathyl is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 09:38 AM
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Do we have to keep all our clothes on when taking a non-Japanese bath?

(Just kidding!)
easytraveler is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 02:31 PM
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Sonia, if there is any way to get over your bashfulness, you should try. The Japanese baths are such a treat, and being naked is part of it. I love sitting on one of those little stools and washing at a low shower, then slipping into the pool. Maybe you could down a lot of sake and try it?
Marilyn is offline  
Oct 28th, 2003, 02:54 PM
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I concur with the posters that you are expected to be "sans vetements" in a single-sex Japanese bath. If it's a "family style" bath (i.e. co-ed), as is sometimes the case at some of the larger hot springs resorts, it's OK to wear a bathing suit.
jaydreb5 is offline  
Oct 29th, 2003, 07:03 AM
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The problem is that you are expected to scub the heck out of yourselve before you enter the water, and how can you do that with clothes on?

The water in a furo will be used by many people over the course of the day, and if you do only a brief wash down, the other patrons will be grossed out! The tub is not for bathing, but for soaking AFTER you have scrubbed all dirt and dead skin off using the faucets and buckets or showerheads outside the tub.

Trust me, the Japenese will not gawk at you unless you are not naked.

When a bath has just a small entry room, and it has a lock, your whole party can go in and use it privately.

When it is obviously a group setup, you could do as my kids did when they went through their modest stage...lurk in the dressing room till everyone leaves, then quick take your bath!
lcuy is offline  
Apr 12th, 2004, 04:57 PM
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I am topping this because I have a related question. I am going to japan w/my 13 yr old son next spring. I want to visit an onsen, and have no problem w/nudity in a setting like that. But he is a typical modest teen (w/the mom thing too) and it would be too much for him to see his Mom naked. Othewise, I think he could go for an dip in an Onsen. So what do we do, look for an onsen w/separate male/female facilites? Is there such a thing? Or go to one that is a family style place and have him wear a bathign suit (which could make him feel uncomfortable since he might get stared at for being clothed?) I appreciate the help, I'm new to this.
emd is offline  
Apr 12th, 2004, 05:06 PM
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I think it is very common for there to be separate baths for men and women. There are also onsen where certain times are for men, others for women, and still others for mixed groups.
Marilyn is offline  
Apr 12th, 2004, 07:50 PM
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Not only is there such a thing, but gender separated, nude use is what you should expect to find.
mrwunrfl is offline  
Apr 12th, 2004, 09:15 PM
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Rotenburo/rotemburo (mixed bathing pools) were the norm until the U.S. occupation after WW2, when the American prudery brought it largely to an end.

Now, as it stated above, bathing is mostly separated by sex, but there is some mixed bathing available for those who like tradition. There's a rather charmingly casual modesty to it all, women wrapping themselves in large towels until they are submerged and often afterwards. Men, who are dispensed with tiny towels largely drape them with tact until in the water, although doing the absolute minimum public wash of feet and genitals even if thoroughly showered beforehand requires dexterity. But no one would be caught openly looking at anyone else anyway.

It's probably worth mentioning that the male changing rooms at larger baths are sometimes staffed by women, who don't bat an eyelid at the male flesh on display, nor do the men turn a hair. If a man is as slender as the average Japanese, he'll be able to knot the towel provided around his waist while in the changing rooms. Otherwise, if desperate to preserve modesty he'll need to drape it over a strategically place wrist.

Surely one should do as the Romans do, and if deciding to participate in Japanese tradition, should do it wholeheartedly.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Apr 12th, 2004, 10:14 PM
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Sonia - we stayed at the Ryokan Shigetsu in Asakusa last April. We had a private bath in our Japanese Style room but also used the communal bath on the top floor.

The mens and womens bath were separate and you could use it privately if you wish by just locking the door.
LeslieC is offline  
Apr 13th, 2004, 05:32 PM
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OK, so it sounds like I don't need to look for an onsen that provides separate male/female bathing facilities as they all do so. Is that right? Or do some only have the family style baths, as jaydreb5 mentioned? Will they always have separate facilities even if they have the family style too?
One thing I found interesting was Peter's info on the towels in the water- I have read that it is taboo to get your towel wet, and that is why you sometimes see people w/towels on their heads in the water(have i been reading too many websites and posts? maybe I shoud just relax about this whole thing)
emd is offline  
Apr 13th, 2004, 06:23 PM
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Indeed, just relax, take things slowly, observe what others around you are doing, and copy them.

As Florence mentions above, in general the tiny towels provided must not go in the water. They are left at the side of the bath (but not where they might be touched by the bath water), or sometimes rinsed with cold water, folded up and carefully balanced on top of the head while you are in the bath.

The large towels may be present in the female facilities of all baths (I wouldn't know), but they were certainly available to women at the two rotemburo I visited. Most baths, as has been said, now have separate male and female facilities.

And pardon an error above (I'm often sleepy at the moment). Rotemburo (also rotenburo) are traditional outdoor pools. Mixed sex pools are described as konr'yoko. Those who know more about Japanese language may be able correct these spellings if necessary.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Apr 13th, 2004, 06:33 PM
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Here's an account of visiting three onsen resorts I wrote about three years ago, and which was published in the Sunday Times. Although it's rather long, I hope it will give readers a good idea of what visiting one of these resorts is all about, of how the resorts can differ from each other, and of the basics of the etiquette.

Steam Cleaned

Japan's hot spring bathing resorts or onsen are where even the Japanese go to find 'lost' Japan--some mythical pre-industrial golden age before 'salaryman' became part of their vocabulary--and they have a special word for the more tucked away and traditional resorts: hito, 'hidden hot springs'.
At onsen you get into a bath that's far too hot, stay in it far too long, and then go walking about outside far too soon, or so your mother would say. But boiling yourself pink is something Japanese mothers have been recommending for centuries as a panacea.

Onsen bathing is traditionally done naked, continues all year round even in outdoor baths called rotenburo, and in a few cases has survived the prudery of the post-WW2 American occupation and remained kon'yoku--mixed sex.

For the first time visitor it's perhaps best to begin not at the remote rustic inns, but at one of the large, popular resorts. This is the cultural shallow end, but it's a safe beginning for the foreign visitor who wants to master the etiquette before easing into more intimate and traditional baths elsewhere without causing ripples of disapproval amongst wallowing Japanese.

There's nothing hito about Noboribetsu, for example, a popular bathing site since its first public bath house opened in 1858. On the tail of the manta-ray-shaped northern island of Hokkaido, this ski-resort-like mountain village proclaims itself 'The Best Hot Springs in the Orient'. Even more lavish with boiling water than it is with capital letters, its volcanic hills and sulphurous valley produce a greater annual volume of hot, mineral saturated liquid than anywhere else in Japan.

Noboribetsu's largest and most numerous baths are beneath the Dai-ichi Takimoto-kan, a vast hotel of interconnecting multi-storey concrete units open to non-residents until mid-afternoon. Once you've paid at the small side entrance and collected a towel, the usual Japanese hopscotch of footwear exchanges begins. First shoes are abandoned in a locker, then there's a long flapping walk on hotel slippers down woody corridors, past a couch potato's paradise of vending machines selling ice cream, beer, pizza, and chips, before finally emerging in a room of par-boiled and torpid individuals half-asleep in reclining chairs. Beyond this the slippers are abandoned as carpet ends and tiling begins, and valuables are placed in a tiny locker whose key is on a rubber loop, the first indication that this is less a spiritual event and more like a visit to your local swimming pool, but with some surprises.

The first is that although the baths are segregated, some of the attendants in the male changing area are female. Signs make clear that however modern these facilities may be, the management is not so crass as to allow bathers to wear swimming costumes, and anyway there are no cubicles in which to change, just racks of wicker baskets to receive your clothes.

The second surprise is that your towel is only a little larger than a handkerchief. Slight-framed Japanese males can just about tie it around themselves with a knot at one hip miniature enough to challenge a watchmaker, but even most of them are reduced to letting it casually swing from an arm held at waist level, or to give up and toss it over their shoulders. With a stoicism familiar to those who?ve travelled in the crush on Tokyo commuter trains, all parties get on with their business as if oblivious to each other.

Through two sets of glass doors, steamed to opacity, men sit at troughs on white plastic stools ladling hot water over their soaped and shampooed bodies until every last drop of foam has disappeared. However spotless you may be, etiquette dictates at least a public rinsing of more intimate areas, not only as a courtesy to those with whom you will share water, but as evidence that you are not culturally out of your depth.

The octagonal central bath and the pillars holding up the distant ceiling suggest decadent Rome, despite the modest noses on most bathers and the un-toga-like towels. The various sunken baths on two levels contain a variety of minerals and are of different depths, shapes, and temperatures ranging from bath-your-mother-would-consider-too-hot, to liquid fire - that under a traditional roof of heavily scented cedar wood, which even the experienced, easing themselves in very gently, seem able to tolerate only for a minute or two.
Towels should not enter the water, and are left folded neatly around the rim of each bath, sometimes used as headrests, or are perched on top of the bathers' heads, sometimes having first been rinsed with cooler water.

At the bottom of stairs to the lower level three waterfalls each the thickness of a fist plunge five metres onto three concrete cubes with a sound like applause. Take a seat and your head, neck, and shoulders receive the pummelling of a most muscular and indefatigable masseur.

Afterwards, for those who have not succumbed to yu-zukare, lethargy from over-bathing, wooden and concrete pathways lead up the valley past patches of snow speckled with fox tracks, past the occasional well-groomed fox itself, waiting for tourist hand-outs, and over the hill to the lake Ohyunuma, which can be heard before it is seen.

The sibilance of high pressure steam is mixed with the thrashing of the lake's surface as if by the action of some amphibian monster. But if there is a Nessie here, she must like her bath hot indeed - 50C at the surface and 130C at the bottom.

Despite being very hidden, Tsurunoyu is easily reached by 300kph shinkansen train northeast from Tokyo which peels off the main line and climbs into mountains on a single-track line, slowing to a crawl. From Tazawako station a bus which carries snow chains wanders for 40 minutes up into the mountains on narrow roads through slightly forlorn agricultural communities to a hut with a telephone, from which the visitor summons the resort's own minibus.

The further climb into a narrow silent valley of snow-laden pines from some idealised Christmas only takes 15 minutes, but goes a century back in time. Amidst the drifts Tsurunoyu itself looks like an ancient black and white photograph, motionless except for the mountain stream busying its way between the buildings, and even the waterwheel rigid. The only spots of colour amongst its black beamed and walled buildings are strings of crimson peppers and orange pomegranates hanging to dry from the eaves of a 120-year-old thatched dining hall. A man, in conical straw hat and cowled against the -5C temperature chips nervously at metre-long Samurai icicles with a plastic shovel, while guests pad soundlessly by in sandals, light cotton robes (yukata) and heavier cotton jackets (haori).
Sliding entrances lead to warm, woody interiors, which flex and creak pleasantly as people come and go. The rooms, all floored with tatami rice-straw matting, have cushions for seats, paper screens over the window, and no television. The only sounds as you change into your own robes are those of the stream, and the wind in the trees.

On your way to the baths the calm of the other guests seems impossible to achieve as snow gathers round your naked toes, and the wind whips through the skirts of your yukata. Their indifference to the temperature turns out to be due not to years of meditation under some spiritual master, but to earlier protracted immersion in hot, milky water.

The 400-year-old rotenburo is partially screened from the path by a roughly woven bamboo hedge and a rickety thatched pavilion, and is reached by sliding open a door into a pebble-floored hut, where clothing is abandoned (there's a separate room for women). At a square sunken bath whose wooden sides are so mineral encrusted as to appear to be concrete, dippers are used for the required pre-bathe scrub, but this doesn't excuse you from rinsing feet and intimate areas at the lip of the rotenburo outside, being careful not to allow water used to run back into the pool. Modesty in mixed company is only preserved by careful juggling with the miniature towel while brandishing a dipper and attempting to maintain balance in a squatting position. The chill wind may provide mortification for the body, but clumsiness may do it for the soul.

In an unusual instance of inequality acting in favour of Japanese womanhood, female bathers are supplied with bath sheets, which they wear at least until submerged?not that anyone's looking, of course.

The reward is complete relaxation in the embrace of the comfortingly warm, creamy, and opaque water, delivered by an elegant wooden spout protruding from the hillside vegetation, while snow flakes settle electrically on the head and shoulders. All is sensation: water on skin, pebbly bottom on soles, the sulphurous pop of occasional bubbles from below, and birdsong.

Later, the dining hall is heated against the evening chill by charcoal pits set in the tatami covered floor, from which barbecued smelt and soup from a suspended metal tureen are brought to your individual low lacquered table. Sitting cross-legged (kneeling if female) you enjoy a succession of local mushrooms and herbs, radishes and fermented soya, tempura and onsen tamago - eggs cooked simply by immersion in the springs. Bathed, fed, and warmed further with local sake, the only disturbance to your enjoyment of this time machine might be your concern as an outsider not to spoil it for Japanese visitors who are similarly rapt.

At the more hidden Jigokudani ('Hell') near Nagano in Western Honshu, has its own surprises. Here you may not only share your bath with a different sex, but a different species, too.

A private single track railway line potters through orchards of neon fruit in small agricultural villages at the base of mountains airbrushed in russets and yellows, the train loud with Burberry-scarfed schoolchildren. A bus takes you through Noboribetsu-like resorts up into the mountains, dropping you in complete silence a 30-minute walk on a pine-scented trail from the Korakukan Ryokan (guest house).

The building is not as ancient as those of Tsurunoyu, but it has the bustle of a working farmhouse, and its complex layers of interlocking roofs with steep internal and external stairways are perched spectacularly above a racing mountain stream in a narrow valley. Some of the small baths in the woody interior are only big enough for two to four, and have locking doors, allowing unembarrassed group bathing to families and friends. Prosaically, ordinary taps can be opened to run cold water into the baths and cool them down. The rotenburo here, glued to the hillside, has views up and down the valley, straight down to the stream below and to a thick jet of steam which whistles forcefully from a hole on the opposite bank.

In the daytime the hillside is alive with two troupes of monkeys which from a distance seem of the cuddly pyjama case kind, but whose red faces and backsides can intimidate from closer up despite their otherwise endearing fluffiness. A golden labrador keeps the them away from the kitchen, but they still appear unexpectedly on balconies, although they are more commonly seen bathing photogenically in a pool a short walk further up the valley, sometimes in family groups. Monkey mothers clearly think hot baths are a good thing, too.

Peter N-H
PeterN_H is offline  
Apr 13th, 2004, 06:46 PM
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Except for small, family-run resort, most onsen resorts do provide separate facilities and switch the gender on the other day. So you can try the other bath on the next morning even if you stay one night only. Of course, you can always ask hotel resorts to confirm that.

For the towel issue, as far as I know (please correct me if I'm wrong), people usually put small towel (handkerchief size, definitely not bath-size) on their heads to help them relax or pat on the shoulder (they usually put shoulder below water). People are so relax and chatting with friends in the bath and don?t really care much. I had the same concern before trying the onsen bath in Japan. But I found that, if people in the bath are naked, you will feel embarrassing to put your clothes/towel on. So my advice is to relax and see what others do at the bath first.

r_shum is offline  
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