Japan’s Public Bathing Exposed: The Naked Truth

I remember when I first came to Japan and a new Japanese friend invited me to a sento, a public bath.
My first thought was “WTF dude! I’m not going get naked with you in the same bath and pretend you aren’t some naked guy next.”
I grew up bathing in private, usually with just a quick shower and have considered nudity as the first step to … you know!!
He probably thought my reaction was as weird as I thought him asking me to go to a bath.
However, in Japan, the bath is probably the one place where you can best get to know your friends and business colleagues.
It’s not weird at all to go to a friend to take a bath.
Mt. Fuji at the sento local public bath house

Mt. Fuji at the sento public bath house in my neighborhood in Tokyo. It’s a common painting in bathhouses.

What’s the deal? Perhaps it can be explain with one expression.
HADAKA NO TSUKIAI 裸の付き合い can be loosely translated as “naked friendship”, an open relationship or even mean being on the same level as everyone else.
When you’re naked, it doesn’t matter if you are a company president, sports star, celebrity, billionaire or the working poor like myself.
All the rank and file of the outside world is left with your clothes in the locker. It’s when you leave the bathhouse that people put on their “armor” and keep to themselves.
As I saw nudity as a form of sexuality, in Japan, it’s just nudity.
It’s important to understand that point of view because it may also explain a lot of other little things you experience in Japan — or it may just confuse you even more.
To be honest, a lot of Japanese don’t have the answers themselves!
I asked my 94 year old neighbor about this and he simply said “You’re naked in a bath. What can you do? You have to take a bath. Why would you be shy about it?”
However, with more and more Japanese youth taking private baths and not having time to take an hour out of the day to walk to a local sento, nudity has become more sensitive.
What’s more, there are just less youth in Japan in general — another problem entirely.

After a year in Japan I finally understood this.
The bathhouse is a place where you can communicate. It sometimes seemed strange to talk to neighbors in the store, but at the bath, it was oddly natural to talk.
I was able to create friendly relationships with my neighbours, learn more about my area and even get invited to family meals at their houses.
Absolutely bizarre!

A little bit about the baths:

Sento are super cheap, found in local neighborhoods and can be seen from a distance because of their high chimneys.
It’s often the highest structure in the area!
These places exist because homes didn’t always have running water or hot water and it was cost effective to go to the bathhouse. Everyone could afford it.
Today in Tokyo, the standard price is 480 yen. It may vary from area to area as this price is mandated by local law.
It’s usually filled with friendly old people who just go because they’re used to the old ways. Many don’t speak English but still, you might be able to exchange a few words.
At sento, it is customary to bring your own bathing needs like a towel, soap, and shampoo.
However, all this is also available at the sento for a reasonable price. A towel with a soap and shampoo pack was 120 yen at my local bath.

Onsen can be more expensive.
Instead of boiled tap water, onsen are geothermically heated water from the ground filled with minerals. They often smell of sulphur.
An onsen can be more than a hot spring. The word itself now mean a resort where you can get traditional food, accommodations and a relaxing experience.
If you don’t want to cough up wads of cash to stay the night, you can do day trips. Almost all onsen have hours where you can go for a dip even if you don’t stay.

My favorite onsen in Takaragawa Onsen in Minakami, Gunma especially in the winter!
My favorite onsen in Takaragawa Onsen in Minakami, Gunma especially in the winter!

Where ever you go, whether it’s in your hotel, to a local bath house or out to the countryside for some relaxing onsen time, definitely experience Japanese bathing.
When in Rome .. I mean in Japan!



Creator and Producer 「ONLY in JAPAN」
President of Weblish Media Ltd.
Reporter for NHK World "Tokyo Eye"

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