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What is a Japanese public bath called?


Japanese public baths, also known as “sentō” or “onsen,” are an integral part of Japanese culture and have been around for centuries. These communal bathing facilities are not just a place to cleanse oneself but also serve as a social gathering spot for locals to unwind and relax. In this article, we will explore in detail what a Japanese public bath is called, the history behind it, how it works, and its significance to Japanese culture.

The History of Japanese Public Baths

Japanese public baths have a rich history dating back to the 6th century when Buddhism was introduced to Japan. The religion emphasized cleanliness and bathing, which led to the construction of communal baths in temples. However, it wasn’t until the 12th century that public baths became popular when wealthy families built private baths in their homes, which later evolved into public baths open to the community.

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The Significance of Japanese Public Baths in Culture

Japanese public baths hold great cultural significance in Japan. They are seen as a way to purify oneself physically and spiritually. The act of washing oneself before entering the bath is considered important as it shows respect for others using the facility. It’s also a place where people gather to relax and socialize, strengthening community ties.

The Difference Between Sentō and Onsen

There are two types of Japanese public baths: sentō and onsen. Sentō refers to public bathhouses that use regular tap water heated by boilers or other means. Onsen, on the other hand, uses water from hot springs heated by volcanic activity. While both offer similar experiences, onsen is seen as more luxurious due to the natural mineral content in the water.

How a Japanese Public Bath Works

A typical Japanese public bath has separate areas for men and women, with each area containing changing rooms, showering areas, and a large communal bath. Before entering the bath, visitors must wash themselves thoroughly using soap and water. Once clean, they can enter the bath and soak in the hot water for as long as they like. Some facilities also offer saunas, cold plunge pools, and massage services.

The Benefits of Using Japanese Public Baths

Aside from relaxation and socialization, using a Japanese public bath has several health benefits. The hot water helps improve blood circulation, relieve muscle tension, and reduce stress levels. The mineral content in onsen water is also believed to help treat certain skin conditions such as eczema.

The Etiquette of Using a Japanese Public Bath

Using a Japanese public bath comes with certain rules and etiquette that visitors must follow. These include washing oneself thoroughly before entering the bath, not bringing any soap or shampoo into the bathwater, keeping quiet while inside the facility, and covering any tattoos if possible (as tattoos are associated with Yakuza or organized crime).

The Future of Japanese Public Baths

In recent years, Japanese public baths have faced declining attendance due to changing lifestyles and increased access to private bathing facilities. However, efforts are being made to revitalize them by promoting their cultural significance and unique experiences.

The Role of Japanese Public Baths in Tourism

Japanese public baths have become an essential part of tourism in Japan. Many tourists visit onsen towns such as Hakone or Beppu to experience the natural hot springs while others visit traditional sentō facilities to immerse themselves in Japanese culture.

Famous Japanese Public Baths

Japan is home to many famous public baths that attract visitors from all over the world. Some notable ones include Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo, Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture, Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma Prefecture, and Dogo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture.


In conclusion, Japanese public baths hold great cultural significance in Japan and offer unique experiences that visitors should experience at least once. Whether you’re interested in relaxation or cultural immersion, there’s something for everyone at these communal bathing facilities.


Buruma, I. (2015). “The Art of Japanese Bathing.” The New York Times.

Japan National Tourism Organization. (n.d.). “Onsen & Sentō.”

Mackintosh-Smith, T. (2008). “Baths: A Social History.” Reaktion Books.

Nakamura-Messenger, S., & Kokai-Kunibert Kato (2003). “Bathing Culture of Japan.” Journal of Cultural Geography.

Ogura-Campbell, Y., & Atsushi Ogura (2016). “Exploring Japan: Tokyo & Beyond.” Tuttle Publishing.

What to expect in a Japanese bathhouse?

Japanese bathhouses commonly have additional amenities such as saunas, massage chairs, and vending machines for snacks and drinks. Some even provide massage services, dining options, and overnight lodging. To save money on accommodations, one can choose to sleep in a reclining chair or tatami rest room at a bathhouse that is open all night.

Should you shower after onsen?

After using an onsen, it’s best not to rinse your body in the shower, as this can lessen the healing properties of the minerals. Instead, it’s suggested to take a short cold shower or bath after leaving the onsen, which also has its own health benefits.

What do you wear in a Japanese public bath?

In an onsen, it is not permitted to wear any clothing or have any fabric touch the water, including swimwear, underwear, or towels. Only your clean, bare body is allowed in the water.

Are Japanese bathhouses unisex?

For centuries, the Japanese have been experts in onsen, or hot spring baths. In the past, men and women would bathe together, but now they are separated by gender. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find mixed-gender onsen, or konyoku, with cities like Tokyo having regulations against them.

Do you wear swimsuit in onsen?

It is not permitted to wear clothing or swimwear in the bathing areas of an onsen. The preservation of cleanliness is highly valued in these sacred locations. Bringing in external dirt and soap is considered unsanitary, hence the prohibition on wearing clothes or swimwear.

Do people wear towels in onsen?

When visiting an onsen, it’s uncommon to see people walking around in just a towel, but if you prefer to cover up before getting into the water, you can rent a towel for a small fee. Additionally, most onsens will offer a “modesty towel” that you can use to walk into the onsen.

The Future of Japanese Public Baths

Despite the challenges faced by Japanese public baths, there are still efforts being made to preserve and promote them. Some facilities are undergoing renovations to attract younger generations, while others are offering new services such as yoga classes or craft workshops to diversify their offerings. Some public baths are also teaming up with local tourism boards to create packages that combine stays at traditional inns with visits to nearby public baths.

Challenges Faced by Japanese Public Baths

While Japanese public baths have a rich cultural history, they are not immune to modern challenges. The decline in attendance is a significant issue, and some facilities struggle to keep up with maintenance costs or meet the needs of an aging population. Additionally, some visitors may find the strict rules and etiquette intimidating or uncomfortable, which can deter them from visiting.

The Role of Technology in Japanese Public Baths

As technology advances, some Japanese public baths are incorporating new features such as automated entry systems or digital signage to enhance the visitor experience. However, there is also concern that too much technology could detract from the traditional atmosphere of these facilities.


Japanese public baths remain an essential part of Japan’s cultural heritage, and efforts are being made to preserve and promote them for future generations. Whether you’re a tourist looking for a unique experience or a local seeking relaxation and community, these communal bathing facilities offer something special that cannot be found elsewhere.

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