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It’s increasingly common knowledge that Japan has some unusual bathing habits, at least compared to those of the Western world. The bathtub in Japan is generally seen as a place to relax, warm up, or ease tired muscles, not as a place to get clean (that’s what the stool and the shower head beside it are for). One of the most novel ways to indulge in this steamy pastime is to attend a public bath house (sentou) and experience a bit of naked bonding time with friends, family, and whoever else happens to be present that day.

However, as most Japanese these days have bathtubs in their homes, the need to visit a dedicated bath house is greatly diminished. These aging facilities are losing business by the day, and many have been forced to close. Thankfully, there is one demographic that remains enthralled by the idea of experiencing public baths as a novelty. Travel agencies and bath houses together are reaching out to foreign tourists as an important source of business.

For the longest time, Japanese public baths were an integral aspect of Japanese society. In 1968, the industry peaked with 17,642 bath houses existing across the nation. However, by spring of 2008 that number dropped to a mere 4,343, and it continues to decrease at a rate of almost one a day. There simply aren’t enough customers to support the industry, not to mention that there are few young people prepared to take over the business, and the facilities themselves are breaking down due to their age. Japanese people who would like to bathe together are now more likely to attend a large-scale bath houses or make a day trip to a natural hot spring (onsen), rather than remain local.

Luckily, there are two types of visitors to the world of public baths: those who go regularly and those who go for sightseeing. And, although the former market is dwindling, the latter is most definitely on the rise. Foreign tourists hoping to experience a slice of “real” Japanese culture and not just the stuff one finds in guidebooks will often seek out these old public baths. Over in Asakusa, an old area of Tokyo that is exceptionally popular with tourists, there is a bath house from the Edo Period called the Jakotsu Baths. Every day they see about 30 foreigners, all intrigued by the idea of bathing together without swimsuits.

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Western tourists have experience with things like jacuzzis, sometimes Turkish baths, or perhaps topless beaches, but the idea of adults taking the time for buck-naked socialization is still quite a spectacle. It’s simply not done in most places. As such, the procedures can become a bit confusing for foreigners.

Thankfully, in an effort to encourage tourists to experiment with Japanese bath houses, many places have put up posters with bath house instructions in up to four languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean. There are also numerous blog posts and online videos explaining the process for those not yet in the know.

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Unfortunately, there are still some cultural boundaries which prevent many foreigners from making use of Japanese public baths. Namely, there is often a stigma against tattoos. In Japan, tattooed skin is associated with members of the yakuza or Japanese mafia. Despite the fact that many foreigners get tattoos as a form of art or self-expression and have no ties whatsoever to organized crime, the majority of bath houses across Japan put a blanket ban on entering with tattoos. It’s said that regardless of one’s personal reasons for inking, tattooed skin “makes the other visitors uneasy,” and “disrupts the uniformity” of the bath house. This rule can sometimes be side-stepped by wrapping the skin in bandages, but this is not always the case.

Nevertheless, it’s beginning to look like the only thing supporting the Japanese market for public bathhouses could be the foreign tourists. It’s good that marketers and travel agents are already doing what they can to make the buildings accessible to foreigners and are even promoting their locations with posters in places like Haneda Airport. But how long will it be before the few remaining bath houses are just a batch of tourist traps, existing beyond the point of being useful to the culture from whence they were conceived?

Source: Naver Matome (Japanese)
Images: Unmissable Tokyo, Asian Offbeat, Travel-Japan

▼ Check out this video for an overview of Japanese bathhouse procedure!