Travel writer Jenny Novitzky takes on Japan’s communal bathing rite… 

It takes a certain kind of bravery to swing open the door of your changing room cubicle completely starkers.

This bravery must become foolhardiness when you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language, can’t understand the signs and have the ominous feeling that what you’re about to do could be so culturally insensitive that you’ll be arrested. So it was for me in Japan.

“You should go to a sento,” said my friend, a Tokyo native. When I asked what they were, her reply was… not entirely enticing. “Like a giant bath, but with people you don’t know.” Hmmm, right.

I’d walked past a few of them in Tokyo and Osaka, traditionally ornate buildings dotted amongst the skyscrapers. I was intrigued, yes. But not so much that I wanted to strip off in front of strangers and risk being mistaken for the yakuza because of my numerous tattoos – a situation that a quick google search had warned me was likely, nae inevitable, if I were to risk going to a public bathhouse.

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But a few days later I was visiting Naoshima, an island-wide open air art gallery in the Seto Inland Sea. I noticed that one of the exhibitions was a working, public bathhouse for visitors to ‘experience the art’. The island had a mix of people from all over the world and was fully equipped for ignorant foreigners. This, surely, was my shot at entry-level communal bathing.

So I found myself in the toilet of an art gallery, contorted in half to stick bandages over a tattoo of daisies that seemed unlikely to mark me out as a local Mafiosa. Still, better safe than sorry, I thought as I taped up various sections of my marked flesh. Once I looked suitably mummy-like, I strode out towards the bathhouse trying to project an air of confidence that I definitely didn’t feel.

The bathhouse itself was a vision of maximalism – the whole building has been created by artist Shinro Ohtake and let’s just say, I’ll have what he’s having. It’s bonkers, covered in neon lights, patchwork tiling and live fish (yep).

I sidled up to the cheery man behind the desk, who in turn pointed me over to a vending machine with a bewildering number of options. One said ‘Mini-book’, another ‘Rainbow t-shirt’. I went for the cheapest and easiest to understand: ‘Bath ticket + towel’. Out popped a ticket and what appeared to be a towel in a Kinder egg, so I collected my goods and shuffled into the changing room.

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It was empty. I walked into a cubicle and slowly started to take off my clothes. As I unzipped and unbuttoned my way to impending doom, I heard two or three women enter the changing rooms, chatting away in Japanese with zero qualms about their soon-to-be al fresco bums. I was nervous, but I couldn’t back down now.

I opened the plastic egg to get at my new towel and unfolded it, to find that it was roughly the size of a face flannel. ‘But, is it for top or bottom? Boobs or butt? Fanny or face?’ I thought, longing for the full-length fluffy robe of a British spa. Flustered, I tried to cover both bits with the towel and ended up with all of it on show. What an amateur. Still, I was here now; I took a deep breath and swung open the cubicle door.

Six pairs of eyes turned to look at me, then just as quickly they turned away again. The three women were totally starkers, towels abandoned to one side as they showered sat down on little wooden stools. After a small pause to collect my nerves, I followed their lead, throwing my ineffective towel to one side and pulling up a pew. I showered quickly, keen to hide myself in the bath water as soon as was socially acceptable.

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When one of the women, an impressively old and wrinkly lady, stood and walked to the bath, I did the same. It was a long thin strip of water, with a giant elephant statue in the middle for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. When I dipped a toe in the water, it was perfection: exactly the temperature of a hot bath after a long day at work. I slipped myself in right up to the shoulders and leant back against the edge, breathing deeply.

The hustle and bustle of Japan’s crowded cities slipped out of my pores as my whole body relaxed. It was glorious. Bobbing about like a happy duckling, I looked down at the tiles covering the bath floor. They were patterned with something. Pastoral scenes? Dainty cherry blossom? I peered closer and saw they were in fact tiles with illustrations of hardcore erotica. Tentacles, ropes, sushi. You name it, they were using it.

I looked up and the old woman caught my eye. Had I broken some kind of secret protocol? Very seriously, she pointed down at the tiles, and then at herself. After a couple of seconds her face split into a massive grin and she began to laugh loudly. I laughed along and my discomfort vanished. Everything was going to be OK at the bathhouse.


Top tips for visiting a sento in Japan

Traditional Japanese onsen

  1. Yes, you’re supposed to be naked. In rare, mixed-gender baths women wear towelling robes, but on the whole it’s a nude affair.
  2. Tattoos are largely frowned upon, although Japan is relaxing on this as tourism grows. Play it safe by covering up with adhesive plasters.
  3. It’s considered rude not to shower before you bathe. It’s a relaxation thing, not a public soaping of your junk.
  4. Go the whole hog with one of Japan’s beautiful ryokan onsens – traditional inns built around natural hot springs.
  5. If you have a tiny towel and HAVE to choose, go bottoms. Trust me on this.

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Images: Flash Pack, Shutterstock, Unsplash, Jenny Novitsky