Public bath houses were once a remarkably common aspect of life. Although some still remain, it’s no longer the case that people can’t afford to have baths installed in their own homes, and bathing has become a private matter. Once, however, public bath houses were the places to be; in the very beginning as a place to get clean or take part in religious ceremonies, and then moving on to accommodate meetings and an opportunity for social contact and leisure. In the latter years, often a trip to the bath house also meant entertainment, a massage, or partaking in other relaxing therapies.
The early history of public baths
The term “public bath” can be misleading, as in some bath houses members were restricted depending upon their religion, gender, or social standing. Originally Japan’s bath houses were made from the natural hot springs (referred to as onsen) that are so common in the area, and there is evidence that the practise began with the advent of Buddhism in the country, although the origin of Japanese bathing seems to have its beginnings in “Misogi”, or ritual purification in water (although the water in that case tends to be very cold.)
In the very beginning, the baths were restricted to priests and had religious, spiritual and healing significance. During the 1100’s, many of these restrictions were lifted and the sick were welcomed in to experience the health properties of the springs. Most of the public bath houses in history were outdoor locations, using the geothermal warmth from the hot springs and minerals built over millennia by the many nearby volcanoes. Over the centuries, the “sento” came into use, which is similar in principle the onsen, however, the sento is an indoor facility and uses piped in hot water instead of natural spring water. It used to be that the sexes mixed in these locations and nudity was not regarded as shameful or shocking to these purposes.
To be considered a true onsen today, the pool must have average water temperatures of 25 degrees Celsius or warmer, and contain at least one of 19 designated elements. These elements include such minerals as sulphur, iron or metabolic acid.
When Japan opened their doors to the West, they also opened their doors to Western culture and ideas. Public bath houses began segregating the sexes, something that still persists in most, but not all, bath houses today. In those that do offer bathing for both sexes, there is also an option for a “women only” room and generally nudity is at least partially covered when patrons climb out of the tubs. Men will typically use a small white towel to cover their genitals while women may choose a towel that wraps completely around their bodies. Although bath houses were (and still are) popular, most homes are equipped with their own bathrooms, and people publicly bathed less and less frequently.
World War II
During the after affects of World War II, the public bath houses saw resurgence due to practical reasons. Many homes were destroyed or compromised to the point that people had to search alternative means to keep their bodies clean. At this point whatever materials were lying about were often brought into use as temporary public bath houses. In recent times, hundreds or possibly thousands of Japanese sentos have been closed down and no new ones have opened. If you visit a sento these days, it’s more likely that you’re looking to take advantage of health or benefits or the atmosphere than the need for hygiene. You can still also take a breather in a Japanese onsen; some of them have been in existence for thousands of years, like the Dogo Onsen on the island of Shikoku. There are mentions of this onsen in texts from early Japanese history.
How to bathe
If you’re considering a visit to either an onsen or sento, there is a protocol you’ll want to be sure to follow. It would be considered a grievous insult to enter the water without first having bathed and removed all dirt or sweat from your body. You’ll find each equipped with shower cabins or bathing stations for this purpose. For the most part, bathers are expected to be nude, although you will find a few water park situations where the mixed gender areas require you to wear a bathing suit.
If you bring a small towel (generally for modesty), don’t dip it into the water, as this is considered unclean. Rather, fold and lay the towel next to you or even fold it and place it on top of your head, as you’ll see many other bathers do. Since children are generally welcome, a bit of horseplay is expected, and sometimes music is playing as well. It is expected however, that the atmosphere will be conducive to conversation.
If you have tattoos, you’ll want to check the onsen or sento rule about allowing those with tattoos through their doors. Since 2015 the rules have lightened somewhat, but due to gang activity, most still don’t allow those with tattoos into the bathing areas. Some will allow small tattoos that can be covered with a patch.