Japanese baths and hot springs (onsen) explained

Why do people use the same towel to scrub themselves and dry themselves in an onsen (hot spring)?

Although you can’t dry yourself fully with it, standing around while the last of the moisture evaporates of your body is all part of the chillout experience, apparently, and the fact that the water is so hot means it doesn’t take too long.

Why do the Japanese wash before getting into the bath tub?

“economy minded housewives often recycle bathwater for use the next day in the washing machine” Getting Wet pg 25. They also use the same water for the whole family. When that water is reheated by running through the boiler again, having soap or shampoo in it would screw up the heating.

Why is okay for the naked bathers in a rotemburo to be visible from a nearby road or hillside?

In Japan (like most places, but more so), it’s more about the effort you put in and the symbolism of the gesture than it is about results. The short bamboo fence with gaps is that effort and gesture. The Japanese are also traditionally less anal about nakedness than Anglo-Saxons (as if anyone could be more so!), e.g. just a couple of generations ago women working bare topped and shared onsens.

Why do Japanese have baths in the evening rather than the morning?

As you are supposed to take your time and unwind, and as you’ve already had a shower before you get in there wouldn’t be much point getting in the water when you are rushing around in the morning. It can also warm you up ready to hit your freezing cold futon. My father-in-law also swears that a shower in the morning makes him ill.

Why do Japanese families have so many towels?

They tend to use once and wash, and you can use 3 for one bath (scrub, dry body, dry hair)

Why do Japanese wash their towels after one use?

With the humid weather and small bathrooms with limited ventilation, they are not going to dry before next time. They are also usually soaking wet due their limited size or due to being used actually in the bath or shower, and if you’ve been scrubbing your body with them they’d need a wash.

Why are Japanese baths short and deep?

Lack of space, especially as there must be enough space next to it to be able to shower before you get in and the Japanese rarely have combined bathroom/ toilets. You can still cover your whole body with water as it is possible to fill it right to the brim and just let the excess water drain off the plastic floor.

Why are plastic “unit bathrooms” so popular?

Again, one reason is that a bath is often filled so that it spills over the edge once you get in. Also, you traditionally need a place to wash before you get in and where there is no room for a separate shower you need to do that over the plastic floor next to the bath as you don’t want to get soap inside the bathtub. Unit bathrooms are also easier to clean of mould- a common problem in Japan due to the moist climate and the lack of bathroom windows for reasons of space and privacy. Finally, they are looking a little old fashioned to young Japanese now but they seemed incredibly practical and modern to their grandparents’ and even parents’ generation, and were developed just as throwing out old style bathrooms became popular.

Why do most gyms and onsen hot spring resorts ban tattoos?

It’s traditionally a sign of yakuza.

How can the Japanese get away with banning foreigners from hot springs etc?

First, it’s worth remembering that the UK and USA had a lot more experience with multiculturalism, expanding rights to groups like women and democracy than Japan has now when they (more or less) got past their “No dogs or Irish” stage, so it will take time and struggle in Japan too, and the state of play in other countries has very little relevance to that. Anyway, Britain and America are at the forefront here, and it makes more sense to compare Japan to Spain or Italy where the situation is less open but actually very similiar. It doesn’t help that all those 3 are countries expect a lot of social cohesion- in Japan having tattoos could be much more of a problem then being foreign when it comes to bathing

Why do some public pools not allow you to use soap and shampoo in the showers?

The official explanation is that it pollutes the drain water, but it is more likely to be to stop people using it as a bathroom. My private gym also theoretically has a rule against just coming in for a shower.

Why does the whole family, including the men, use the same girly floral smelling body shampoo (shower gel)?

A lack of space in the bathroom, mother doing all the shopping, Japanese men not needing as much deodorizing and avoiding strong smells, and some crap companies like Kao who are very low on innovation.


  1. karl schroeder said,

    March 26, 2008 at 1:11 am

    I was wondering about the tattoos and onsens, ok so they are not allowed in the private onsens, what about the springs that are off the beaten path? I have found a list of free onsens and Japan have alot of them.

  2. alexcase said,

    March 26, 2008 at 2:24 pm

    Free onsen tend to be outside and completely unattended, in which case you can of course reveal any coloured skin you like. I think the chances that any Japanese who wandered by would think a foreigner was a yakuza would be minimal. Hope that helps

  3. Michael said,

    December 12, 2011 at 2:36 am

    The part about unit bathrooms begs an interesting question: How do modern Japanese designers deal with the same problems?

  4. alexcase said,

    December 12, 2011 at 6:32 am

    At my budget range, they simply continue to use “unit bathrooms”

  5. Michael said,

    December 12, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I mean when they build bathrooms for people who can afford modern technologies.

  6. alexcase said,

    December 13, 2011 at 3:36 am

    I don’t think most Japanese people would consider “unit bathrooms” dated, although if hotels are anything to go by I wouldn’t be surprised if the rich go for completely Western bathrooms with carpet, shower cubicle and large shallow bath. I’d imagine many Japanese would miss the feeling of sitting upright in a bath with the water up to your chin, however. The Japanese system also suits bathing with baby more than the Western way, though there are also many times when I wish I could just sit on the carpet and wait…

  7. Ana said,

    July 11, 2012 at 10:40 am

    “it makes more sense to compare Japan to Spain or Italy where the situation is less open but actually very similiar” What do you mean? I’m Spaniard and don’t get it. We don’t ban foreigners from public places of any sort in Spain.

    • Leimana said,

      January 31, 2013 at 2:11 am

      The onsen’s that ban foreigners are not public places they are buisnesses.

  8. 0gattomiao said,

    December 4, 2013 at 11:27 am

    I’m italian and no matter where you go there isn’t any discrimination against foreigners, I mean: you may not prohibit the entry to customers based on their ethnicity, if you do you can be denounced.
    I’ve read more of your post and in somme of them you just said a lot of stupid and unfounded things about Italy and Spain. Do not speak of things you don’t know.

  9. alexcase said,

    December 4, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    I lived in both. Have you?

    It’s certainly true that there are no signs in Spain and Italy banning foreigners, but there are plenty of bars in Spain where Africans and Arabs are made very unwelcome indeed. And do you honestly mean to tell me that there is no anti-Chinese prejudice in Italy, especially in particular cities where they compete with the locals?

    I’m pretty sure this is the only post where I’ve mentioned Spain. Can you point me towards another?

  10. alexcase said,

    December 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

    Oh, and Italian football fans and politicians of course…

    Having said all that, I’m not particularly judgemental about the casual racism in Japan, Italy or Spain. All of them remind me of Britain in the 70s, so it’s probably just a phase they all have to go through. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it though.

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