Generally, for most people the mere idea of being naked in public is completely humiliating and scary. And the notion of taking a public bath or enjoying a session of steam in a sauna with a group of naked people, even if they are of the same sex as you, is totally unimaginable. However, in Japan, the concept of taking a public bath – either an Onsen or a Sento – with friends and even strangers is a commonly accepted tradition that has been practiced for centuries. Many of the sentos and onsens also offer a Sauna and a steam room experience, to help the body rejuvenate after a dip in the hot waters in the public bath. So, what is considered as weird behaviour by many foreigners, is considered as perfectly normal behaviour, which is nothing to be embarrassed about, by the Japanese
First things first : Are sento and onsen the same?
Many foreigners are often confused between the two terms, ‘Sento’ and ‘Onsen’, and many use these terms to refer to the same thing. However, these are two different things. A sento is a public hot bath, where the water comes from a tap. However, the onsen gets its hot water from a natural hot spring. Most public baths in Japan, especially ones catering to the tourist crowds, are a combination of both. This means they have one or two baths which get their water from a natural hot spring, but a majority of their baths get the hot water from taps, and have some additives in them to give them a feel of natural spring water. Many of these modern “onsens” also have a Jacuzzi and a steam and a sauna room to draw more crowds in.
If you are planning to visit one of the “onsens”, remember that like everything else, the Japanese also have a strong sense of etiquette and decorum that needs to be understood and respected while enjoying the benefits of a hot bath, and the sauna afterwards. Here are some of the etiquettes, as well as benefits of enjoying a good hot steam bath in any onsen or sento in Japan.
Be prepared to be naked
In most public bath areas and saunas in the onsens, you are expected to be completely naked. While this may not be an idea, many people are comfortable with, the Japanese have enjoyed the onsen culture au naturel since childhood, and expect even foreigners to accept this culture in the same manner, in which they enjoy it. You can cover your modesty partially, with a small cloth while walking around the baths or to the sauna or the changing room, but when you are in the bath, ensure that the cloth does not touch the water. You can keep it on your head or on the side, but never touching the water. Even in the saunas, remember it is considered good etiquette to sit on your own towel, and never on the towels already kept in the sauna.
Wash yourself properly
Onsen etiquette is very strict about washing yourself before you do anything. Ensure that you wash yourself before entering the bath area or even the sauna. A quick rinse before entering the sauna is not sufficient, but ensure that you take a proper wash, with soap. This will ensure that you do not contaminate the communal bath or the sauna. There will be a designated shower areas, with a stool. Sith down on the stool, and take a proper shower, and clean up. Taking a shower standing up is considered rude and inconsiderate to others. After you are done, wash the stool, and clean the general area around you too. Most importantly, don’t spray water on others.
Hide your tattoos
Often, tattoos in Japan are associated with organized crime. As a result, many people are uncomfortable with tattoos, and their public displays, especially in a place like a public bath or a sauna, where they will be in full display. Small tattoos can be covered with a bandage, but if you have an uncovered tattoo, expect that you will not be allowed to get into the bath.
Be ready to bond with others
Onsens are used more than just for bathing. The saunas and the public baths are a good time to build a strong platonic relationship with your fellow companion. However, remember that saunas or the public bath areas are conducive only for quiet, private conversations and not loud intense debates. Be respectful of others, who may in the sauna to seek solitude and relaxation, and keep your voices low.
Get ready for glowing skin
Basking in the heat is one of the oldest beauty treatments to clean the skin, as deep sweating gets rid of our dead skin cells, replacing them with new ones which keep your skin in good working condition. It rinses out the bacteria and improves blood circulation, making the skin soft and glowing.
Prepare to be refreshed
Saunas are a great way to flush out the toxins that get accumulated inside the body. Saunas cause heavy sweating which remove the toxins and leave you feeling refreshed and more energetic. However, don’t spend too much time in the sauna, however refreshed you may be feeling. Sitting in the sauna too long can also make one weak or sick, and result in a person fainting out of sheer exhaustion or overheating. If you feel light-headed exit the sauna and move to a bath, which may be cooler. Remember to keep your sauna usage time under 10 minutes.
According to Japanese tradition, the ability to shed one’s clothes, in front of others indicates that they are not hiding behind any pretences or covering any inhibitions, and this helps them to develop a special bond of trust and friendship with the people around them. Such relationships are known as hadaka no tsukiai. Many Japanese treat these experiences in a similar manner to the way Westerners may bond with friends over a ball game on TV or spending time with friends at the pub.
In Japan, a visit to the public sauna or a bath-house is a relaxing and therapeutic way to spend a few hours – either by one self or with friends. It is recommended to visit a Japanese onsen to experience a communal bath and sauna at least once. You will either love it or be too embarrassed to go again, but given all the health benefits of the different baths and the saunas, it is definitely worth a visit once in a lifetime.
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