Public Bath Houses!
Not that different from my experience
Well, when someone mentions public bath houses, the reaction that people usually goes along the lines of: Public...as in you bath...with strangers..? You were neked in public?! ...So...what was it like?
The responses were wide and varied from shell-shocked to curious. In my opinion, a lot of westerners can't quite get over the fact that you'd have to get naked in public (okay, not quite public public) but with total strangers. Bathing is a very private matter and not for the rest of the community to see but, in Asian countries that have a tradition of it as well as places like Finland, it has it practicalities.
I'm not going to go into historical details or whatnot because a lot of my information is second hand and may be wrong so I'll just talk about my FIRST experience going to a public bath.
First things first, make sure you bring all the necessities that you would normally use during your shower or bath time. (towel, razor, cloth, etc.)
Most places will provide liquid soap but if you prefer to bring you own or don't want to risk it, by all means bring your own!
If it's cold out, during winter, or whatever the weather may be like, please dress appropriately. That being said, make sure you bring extra clothes unless you have no problem wearing the clothes you went there with.
Oh, and don't be like me and forget your towel. It'll cost you around 500Y or just about $5.00 for a new one, but at least you get to keep it.
I'll take you on a step by step process on what I did:
1) You walk in and you'll notice at the entrance, there is a rack with circular slots. If it's raining, that's where you put your umbrellas. You'll find that almost at every store or restaurant entrance to keep the floors dry and immaculate. I wish that my home town had those because it rains a LOT!
2) you walk into the main door way and you'll notice that there is a change in levels and a huge rug or mat before that slight level change. Normally, you take off your shoes and step on the higher level with your socks only.
NOTE: Japan is VERY big on socks, especially at places where you take off your shoes. It's almost rude to come with no socks but also in their opinion, it's a bit dirty. They just prefer socks is all.
3) You carry your shoes with you and there are tons of lockers around so you just choose one that isn't occupied and then store your shoes, taking the locker key with you.
4)Next there is a front desk you head towards but don't go to the people behind the desk. go to the vending machine and buy your ticket in.
NOTE: Japan is WELL KNOWN for their various vending machines, whether its for food or for buying tickets for entrance, they have vending machines or just about anything! Also note, even if you try to tell the people what you order because essentially, you go and give them your ticket, they won't deal with you until you purchase you ticket and will point you to the machine anyway. It's just how things are done here (Shrugs)
5) You look for Adult admission and usually the admission tickets are at the top because it is the main ticket bought. This is also where you would pick up your towel *Ahem* if you left it at home. If you need any other necessities like lotion or conditioner, this is the place to buy it.
6) Take your ticket and hand it to the ladies at the desk. Don't forget to give them your key as well; they store it during your stay. They will hand you a key for your lockers to store the rest of your stuff and it has a little bun-gee or spiral cord that stretches so that you may put your key on your wrist. They directed us upstairs or depending on where the bathing area is at, they'll point you in the right direction.
7) You find the door that says Man or Woman; 女 男；おんな おとこ；女おんな＝Woman 男おとこ＝Man. Please go into the appropriate one otherwise you will be in for a BIG surprise upon entry.
8) Ever gone to a gym or YMCA and you have people that have no problem getting naked in front of others...well, it's the same here, in fact, expected here! In this locker area, you've got your designated locker key from the front desk so you may put all your belongings including your clothes.
NOTE: Being a westerner myself, I had to take a few deep breaths before getting the nerve to take off my clothing but after that, I was fine seeing as no one really stares or gawks. Plus, most of the people that go to these public baths are the older generation and I'm just glad that I'm still firm in places that they otherwise aren't. (HORRIBLE, I know but it was the one consolation for me to walk around there without hiding in ever corner :P)
9) So you store everything you need, just bringing the necessities. It's your preference whether or not you want to bring your towel but I prefer to have it with me.
10) As soon as you walk past the locker area, there is a sliding door that leads to the bathing area.
NOTE: One of the most important parts of this experience is the actual washing. The whole idea behind it is to keep the pools clean when you want to soak so you wash from head to toe.
11) So there is a bench or plastic stool to sit in as you scrub up but these washing areas have mini stations each containing: one stool, one bucket, one mirror, one shower head/spigot or faucet as well as a set of liquid soap and shampoo. You can adjust the temperature of the faucet turning the dial away from you to make it hotter or towards you to make it cooler. The Bucket comes handy for dousing yourself or washing hair.
NOTE: Because the whole idea is to get clean, the best rule is to wash from head to toe or vise versa, twice. If you have long hair, it's advised to put it up and away from your nape. If you are like me and condition your hair, it's best to wash once again because the oily residue from the conditioner would stick to your body even if your rinsed well.
12) Now that you are all washed up, you may leave your articles above the station you were washing at as long as it is out of the way. Don't forget to rinse off your station and area for the next users.
13) Now you can relax and enjoy the best part about the whole public bath house experience: the Pools & Saunas
NOTE: You don't submerge your whole head underwater, but up to your neck. Also, please don't bring your buckets into the pools because they are considered dirty; wash cloths as well. I think regular towels are fine as long as they don't come into the pool and only used when you get out of the pools
14) There are then pools of different sizes and shapes as well as temperatures. I was going to pull a faux pas and walk right into the 18C degree pool if my friend hadn't given me a warning. I'm sure the older ladies would have had a nice laugh, especially after I just walked from the washing area to the outside where it's less than 10C.
NOTE: LOOK CLOSELY at the temperature for each pool. The hottest can go up to 42C and if your aren't ready to go into that, you'll shock your body. It's good to change pools and go into the cold one every so often to temper your body. Sometimes you can get dizzy from staying in too long or even feel sick, so limit your time in the hot pools to only 15-20 minutes each. Feel free to utilize the veranda chairs to cool off if you don't feel like shocking your body in the 18C pool.
15) When you leave, don't forget you stuff at the top of the wash station and just outside the door by the locker area, there is a drying area with a large mirror and sinks. You can dry off their and adjacent to that is the hair drying area.
NOTE: If you have long hair, it's good to dry your hair before braving the elements, especially if it's winter and you just got out of that warm place, you'll keep warm longer if you don't have a cold sopping wet head.
16) When its time to leave, return the bath locker key to the front desk and they'll hand back your key to access your shoes.
17) Grab your shoes and leave the key on the door and you're free to go!
That's the basic bathhouse procedure but if I'm not mistaken, it's the same or very similar to Onsens 温泉- hot springs as well