Aspects of bicycle touring in Japan By Bill Macher

Bathing in Japan...It's Great!

But what does one need to know to do it right?

sento:japanese public bathWell, just a few basics. But first let me outline the physical layout. Baths are segregated, that is, men share one side and women the other. The entrance will have a step up, and you take off your shoes at this point. There will be small shoe boxes where you can store your shoes, or you often can just leave them there on the floor with those of others. When you enter the appropriate side, you will find an open changing area with lockable lockers for your clothes... usually... or in the country there may just be baskets to put your clothes in. Usually there is one attendant, most often a woman (but not always) and this person has a full view of both sides of the wall that separates the men from the women. You pay her as you enter. Don't worry, the attendant has seen it all time and time need to be bashful...she (or he) will not even notice you are there as you climb out of your clothes and go into the bathing area.

In the bathing area you will find small stools, and bowls to wash off with. There may also be soap, but it pays to have you own just in case. Bring a small towel, or buy one for a couple hundred yen from the bath attendant when you pay your entrance fee. It is yours to keep. Use it as a washcloth and also to wipe your body dry after you finish bathing.

You will see a number of faucets emanating from the walls and from an island (or islands) in the middle.What you do is place your stool in front one of these faucet pairs, and use the bowl to catch the water. Mix hot and cold to your liking, and pour bowl after bowl over you head and body! You know what to do! The faucets are spring loaded, and if you give them a push they will spew out a half a bowl or so of water each. Not enough, push again! There is no limit...enjoy. But don't do your laundry...washing laundry in the public bath is frowned upon!

You MUST wash and rinse off well, before soaking in the hot water in one of the large tubs. These tubs are communal and large, depending on the bath, and can easily hold a dozen or more at a time, and up to hundreds if you find a very large hot spring. The tubs may be of different temperatures, soak in the cooler first, then move on to the hotter one as you get adjusted to the hot water. Or take the hot one first, it all depends on the individual. There may be a cold water faucet at the tub. Do not put cold water in... you are the guest... the locals know what the temperature of the water should be.

The sento (public bath) or onsen (hot spring) are enjoyed the same way. And don't be put off if a place looks like it should be very expensive ( as you remember that little country bath where you paid less than 400 yen) and is immaculate and shining. Chances are to take a bath at the onsen you may pay 600 yen, but it will almost always be reasonable.

Don't be afraid to ask. One of the nicest onsen memories I have is that of a very old, large onsen, named Sukayu (if my memory is correct), in the mountains near lake Towada ko on the Northern main island. And the cost was only 400 yen.

Outdoor onsen(Hot spring)Occasionally you may find a free outdoor onsen. I had a nice experience at one in Hokkaido, a couple miles up the road from Rausu, on the road that crosses the Shiretoko Hanto (peninsula). I rode my bike across a small bridge, and parked right next to the outdoor bath, which was fed hot spring water that was tempered with cold water from the passing stream.

You will soon learn to be comfortable in the sento and onsen. Observe the local people an you will learn the customs of the bath quite fast. Some will discretely hold their small wash cloth over their private parts...others will wrap it in a ring and place it on top of their heads and strut around like... well... like I feel like doing sometimes! You should keep your towel out of the bath water. Put it on top of you head, or leave it in your bowl with your soap.

Outdoor onsen No2.(Hot spring)And remember...if you haven't spent an hour washing, soaking, washing again, relaxing in the hot water, and enjoying a final wash before exiting back to the changing room... well, need I say more???? Sure is great end to a long day of riding. Oh, one more thing... beer is frequently on sale in the changing room...along with soft drinks, naturally.

Not so long ago, there was a Sento on every corner. But today more and more are closing because of the increasingly affluence of Japanese society, where a bath in the home/apartment is now commonplace. However, the sento/onsen tradition is also part of the cultural fabric, and as the local sento close in towns, onsen are also opening. These onsen function in many cases as a replacement for the older, traditional sento. They are fancy, cost a bit more, may include a rotenburo (outdoor bathing area) and are quite fine. As one young father told me as we soaked together with his child at of these... "They call this an onsen, but it is really a Super sento!!"

The sento/onsen experience is one of the things that makes Japan "Bicycle Tourist Heaven!"

uploaded:08, 11, 2005

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