When in Rome, do as the Romans! In Japan, I was curious to experience a public bathhouse, or sento. In my head, I pictured a leisurely soak in solitude, washing away my travel fatigue in a bubbling local hot spring. The reality… was much more communal.
Apparently, sento are a fading tradition harkening back to the times when most Japanese households did not have their own baths. Today, “amusement park” esque bath houses are popular, featuring a full suite of pools, open-air baths and saunas. I visited one such themepark, Oedo Onsen Monogatari, which features six different types of baths, including one in which you can lie down (‘neyu’), a lukewarm bath ideal for summer (‘nuruyu’) and a special bath for dogs (‘Tsunayoshi Bath Tub’).
The bathing room is separated by male and female BUT the entire bath house requires full nudity. (Hence why this post is quite light on the pictures) While I knew this upfront, the experience was still a shock and slightly uncomfortable. Upon entering the bathing pool section of Oedo Onsen Monogatari, I was given a locker and key (notice the cute ocean wave pattern on the lockers), told to explicitly strip and then pre-wash before being allowed to enter the pools. For pointers on Japanese bath etiquette, check out this Lonely Planet post here.
Each pool is designated a certain temperature and there were roughly 10 pools total. I chose to go from hottest to coldest, although to be honest I’m not sure if it should have been the other way around. I was the only non-Japanese person there, but it was still a pleasant experience to soak in, as the water at Oedo Onsen Monogatari is drawn from 1,400 meters underground and is rich in sodium and chlorine ions. The thermal baths were definitely effective in relieving nerve and muscle tension as advertised!
I went to the bathhouse at night, and although it was dark out, the outdoor pools and saunas were open as well, which were fun and lively to try. The onsen also has a Japanese garden bath and rock path. This outdoor section was co-ed (as you went out with a robe on) and I had fun listening to a trio of Japanese guys tip toe across the sharp rocks, in what is supposed to be a relieving foot massage. Yip Yip Owwwwwwwwwwww! Eip Eip Yeoooooooow! They seemed to have a fun, if perverse time, running across the rocks over and over.
The onsen is a popular family destination as well and features a social section with snacks, games, ice cream and soju / alcoholic beverages. After I had my fill of the baths, I tried some peach soju and relaxed among the cushions for a nice nap.
While Oedo Onsen Monogatari might not be a must-see for everyone I was glad for the experience and might relive the awkward foreigner nude soak again, just to sit in that relaxing thermal water. I’ve been to a bathhouse in Hungary as well, but that one luckily allowed swimsuits.
Would you ever visit a public bathhouse? Let me know in the comments below!
Read more: Travel to Japan
Want to know what else to do in Tokyo? Check out my full Japan series:
That Time I Got Naked with Strangers… My Japanese Bathhouse Experience
Tsukiji Fish Market Pt 1 Is the Tuna Auction Worth Visiting?
Tsukiji Fish Market Pt 2 (You Woke Up Late) The Other Stalls
How to Travel Japan Shinkansen & the Japan Rail Pass
Tokyo’s Most Famous Temple: Asakusa and Senso-Ji
Hotel Review Mornings at the Park Hyatt Tokyo
Tokyo Sights: Visiting the Imperial East Gardens
A Visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto (Memoirs of a Geisha!)
Sushi for Breakfast, Really? Sushi Daiwa at Tsukiji
Dessert Among Diamonds Mikimoto Lounge
How Good is Japanese Tonkatsu