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Are public bathhouses a thing in Japan?

The culture of public bathhouses in Japan

Public bathhouses, also known as sento or onsen, have been a significant part of Japanese culture for centuries. They were initially established to provide a place where people could clean themselves since many homes in Japan did not have their own baths. Today, public bathhouses are still prevalent in Japan and are enjoyed by people of all ages. In this article, we will explore the history and culture of public bathhouses in Japan and why they continue to be a beloved tradition.

History of public bathhouses in Japan

The history of public bathhouses in Japan dates back to the 6th century when Buddhism was introduced to the country. Monks would use hot springs to purify themselves before prayer. Later on, public bathhouses emerged as a way for ordinary people to cleanse themselves. During the Edo period, from 1603 to 1868, public bathhouses became more popular, and many neighborhoods had their own sento. Today, there are over 10,000 sento and onsen throughout Japan.

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Types of public bathhouses

There are two main types of public bathhouses in Japan: sento and onsen. Sento is a traditional Japanese public bathhouse that uses regular water. Onsen is a natural hot spring bathhouse that uses geothermal water from deep beneath the earth’s surface. Onsen is more popular among tourists because it is believed to have healing properties due to its high mineral content.

Etiquette at public bathhouses

Visitors to a public bathhouse should follow certain etiquette rules. Before entering the baths, one must remove all clothing and store them in a locker provided at the entrance. It is customary to wash oneself before entering the communal baths using small stools and buckets provided. Tattoos are often not allowed due to their association with organized crime; however, some establishments allow them if covered with a patch.

Benefits of visiting a public bathhouse

There are several benefits of visiting a public bathhouse, including relaxation and stress relief, improved circulation, and skin health benefits. Bathing in hot water can also help reduce muscle pain and improve sleep quality.

Challenges facing public bathhouses

Despite their popularity, public bathhouses in Japan face several challenges. One major challenge is the decline in customers due to the availability of private showers at home. Another challenge is the high cost of maintaining traditional wood-fired boilers used to heat the water.

Famous public bathhouses in Japan

There are several famous public bathhouses in Japan that attract both locals and tourists alike. For example, Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo is a theme park-like onsen that recreates an Edo-era atmosphere with its architecture and décor.

Future of public bathhouses

The future of public bathhouses in Japan is uncertain due to declining customer numbers and rising maintenance costs. Some establishments have modernized by introducing new facilities such as saunas and massage services to attract younger customers.

Impact of COVID-19 on public bathhouses

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the operations of public bathhouses in Japan. Many establishments have introduced new hygiene measures such as temperature checks, mandatory mask-wearing, and reduced capacity limits.

Public bathhouse tourism

Public bathhouse tourism has become increasingly popular among international visitors to Japan. Some tour operators offer packages that include visits to various onsens throughout the country.


In conclusion, public bathhouses continue to be an essential part of Japanese culture despite facing various challenges today. They provide an opportunity for relaxation and socialization while also offering numerous health benefits. As long as there are people who appreciate its significance, the tradition will continue to thrive.


Do Japanese hotels have public baths?

Hotels in Japan often feature public baths that are separate from the private ones in guest rooms. These large baths are typically divided into separate areas for men and women, and guests must change into appropriate clothing and store their belongings in designated lockers or baskets before entering.

Are Japanese public baths safe?

It is considered polite to refrain from using onsens, especially during heavy menstruation, even if using a tampon. In Japan, onsens and pools do not typically use strong disinfectants, making it unsanitary for everyone.

Is bathing together normal in Japan?

In Japan, it is customary for parents and children to take baths together while fully naked, which is considered normal. From a Japanese viewpoint, this is a good opportunity for families to bond. As children get older, they typically begin to bathe separately.

Are there private bath houses in Japan?

Fortunately, there are some bathhouses and traditional Japanese inns that provide individual private baths. Travelers can escape the busy atmosphere of Tokyo and relax in onsens, where Kashikiriburo is a popular type of bath that families, couples, and even those with tattoos can enjoy.

Can you wear swimsuit in private onsen?

When using the onsen bathing areas, it is not permitted to wear clothing or bathing suits. This is because the cleanliness of the onsen is highly valued and they are considered somewhat sacred. Clothing and bathing suits can introduce dirt and soap from outside into the hot spring waters, which is seen as unhygienic.

What do you wear to a public bath in Japan?

In Japan’s onsen, it is required to be fully naked as clothing and towels are considered unclean and should not be brought into the facility. While this may seem unusual to some, it is a common practice and not considered a significant issue.

Modernization of public bathhouses

To attract younger generations, some public bathhouses have modernized by introducing new facilities such as saunas, massage services, and even restaurants. They have also adopted new technology such as electric heating systems instead of traditional wood-fired boilers, which are more expensive to maintain. Some establishments have also started offering private baths for families and couples who prefer more privacy.

Gender separation in public bathhouses

In traditional Japanese public bathhouses, men and women bathe separately. However, some modern sento and onsen have introduced mixed-gender bathing areas to cater to the needs of foreign visitors who are not accustomed to gender separation. These mixed-gender areas usually require swimwear to be worn.

Public bathhouses in Japanese literature and art

Public bathhouses have been depicted in various works of Japanese literature and art throughout history. For example, the famous ukiyo-e print series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo” by Utagawa Hiroshige features several prints that depict public bathhouses in Edo-era Japan.

Public bathhouses in Japanese festivals

Public bathhouses are also a significant part of some Japanese festivals. For example, the annual “Miyoshi no Onsen Matsuri” in Miyoshi City features a parade of portable onsen with participants dressed in yukata (casual summer kimono) carrying buckets and towels.


In conclusion, public bathhouses continue to be an integral part of Japanese culture, offering a unique experience that cannot be found elsewhere. Although they face challenges such as declining customers and rising maintenance costs, some establishments have modernized to attract younger generations while still maintaining their traditional roots. Public bathhouses will continue to be cherished by the Japanese people and appreciated by visitors from around the world for years to come.

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