Japanese bathing etiquette may be somewhat different than what you are used to home. With countless luxurious hot springs and public bathhouses throughout Japan, bathing is one of Japan's truly great pleasures, and one that you should take ample opportunity to indulge in while in Japan. Before you do, though, here are 3 essential rules of Japanese bathing etiquette that you should be familiar with.
1. Wash Outside, Then Bathe!
The first and most important bathing rule is that in Japan, bathers must first wash themselves outside the bath before getting into the bath! Since public baths and hot springs in Japan are communal, it would be pretty unsanitary if everyone jumped into a common bath and began washing themselves in it. Therefore, Japanese baths provide a separate wash area outside of the actual bath. Just remember, make sure to wash and rinse your body thoroughly before actually getting into the bath!
Home baths in Japan are also shared by the entire family, so the same rule applies. If you are a guest in a Japanese home and are invited to take a bath, be sure to wash thoroughly outside the bath before getting into the bath.
2. Birthday Suits Only in the Onsen
One question many first-time Japan bathers have is whether it is OK to wear a bathing suit in Japanese hot springs (onsen) or public bathhouses (sento). The answer is a resounding NO! Unfortunately you're going to have to cast your modesty aside and bathe in the nude like everyone else.
Don't worry, though. Almost all onsens and bath houses in Japan are separated by gender (a very few still offer "mixed bathing"). Although bathing in the nude in the company of strangers can be a bit awkward at first, the soothing blissfulness of the steaming hot bath will soon absorb every care you have about the world, including your exposed nakedness!
3. Tattoos May be a No-No
In Japan, tattoos (irezumi) are associated with the yakuza, Japan's mafia. Since intimidating yakuza would scare away business, most onsens and bath houses have a rule that strictly forbids tattoos. If you have a prominent tattoo, this may mean that you will not be allowed into onsens or sento. Yes, even though you are a foreigner and obviously not a Japanese gangster, in Japan, rules are inflexible, so no amount of reasoning will convince a proprietor to look the other way.
However, even if you're covered in tattoos, all is not lost. Many onsen have special baths, called "kashi-kiri," that can be rented privately. If you're concerned that your tattoos may prevent you from bathing but you still want to experience Japan's blissful hot springs and bathhouses, see if you can find an onsen with a kashi-kiri you can reserve in advance.
Follow these 3 essential rules of Japanese bathing etiquette, and you'll assure yourself of an unforgettable and culturally correct Japanese bathing experience!