Wash out

Matt Wilce and Georgia Jacobs test some of Tokyo' hottest waters.



Cleanliness is next to godliness, especially to the Japanese whose bathing habits border on the religious. From a steep at a sento to a series of dips in the varied pools of an onsen, public soaking is a national obsession fueled by over 20,000 thermal springs that simmer beneath this country's volcanic surface. This quintessentially Japanese passion (public bathing is one tradition that cannot be traced back to the Chinese) has religious roots: Shinto required a ritual scrub down before anyone could enter a holy place, and many hot springs owe their name to a monk who discovered them.

Today, ablution aficionados are after the attainment of yudedako (boiled octopus) rather than Nirvana, and enterprising businessmen have taken the art of bathing a step beyond the basic dip. If you think the idea of sharing a tub with a bunch of strangers isn't such a hot one, you'll find the cheap shiatsu, steam and sauna that are now part and parcel of many public bathhouses a great way to soak away the stresses of city living. With winter in full swing, there's no time like the present to join in some good clean fun, and you don't have to jump on the shinkansen to do it. TC found plenty of opportunities to get up to our necks in hot water without leaving the metropolis.

Heaven sento
Public baths or sento, literally "penny bath," were once a common sight, the steamy nuclei of each community that offered respite from winter chills. The poor relations of the perennially popular onsen (natural hot springs), sento are usually comprised of a simple changing room, shower room and bath. The surroundings are generally as down-market as the plain, heated mizu, although some sento try to spice things up: At winter solstice yuzu float in the bath to add a hint of citrus and some "New Age baths" are spiked with peppermint and even coffee.

One of Jindaiji Onsen's outdoor baths
Matt Wilce

At the bottom of the bathhouse chain, sento have decreased in number by about 50 percent over the last 30 years. But nostalgia for the real bathing experience is prompting a resurgence of interest in these venerable establishments. Masaya Hoshi Editor of 1010, a specialist magazine designed to promote sento, is concerned about their possible decline. "Now we have less than 1300 sento in Tokyo and around 30-50 of them close their doors every year. I know it's inevitable, but we must do something," he says. One strategy for attracting new customers is to emphasize the health benefits of bathing en masse.

According to the Nihon TV show, "Ito ke no Shoku taku," the negative ions produced by the agitated water and steam promote relaxation and a sense of security and well-being. The show even attempted to compare the difference in ions released in a cramped apartment bathroom with a sento to prove the theory. Science aside, a stop at your local public bath is a great way to unwind after a hard day's work and to get to know your neighbors in the process. To locate sento in your area ask at the koban (police box). The entrance is often an obscure opening with navy curtains and usually yu (kanji), which literally means "hot water," is in the name. The following are some Tokyo sento worth going the extra mile for:

Pokapoka Land Takaban no Yu
Popular local sento with indoor and outdoor baths, herb bath, sauna and two jet baths that give a pretty thorough massage.
2-2-1, Takaban, Meguro-ku (Tel: 03-3713-1005); open 3pm-12am (closed Fri) (JY385, sauna JY715). Nearest stn: Toyoko line Gakugeidaigaku.

A survivor from the Edo period. Check out the famous Kutani mosaic as you soak. Small but very convenient after shopping
8-7-5 Ginza Chuo-ku (Tel: 03-3571-5469); open 2pm-12am (closed Sun and holidays) (JY400). Nearest stn: Shimbashi or Ginza.

Therume Suehiro
This friendly family run sento is housed in an old Kyoto-style building.
5-16-14 Shimo Kita-ku (Tel: 03-3901-6316); open 2pm-12am (400, sauna 300) Nearest stn: Namboku line Shimo.

Chilling out in the rotenburo
Georgia Jacobs

L'eau naturel
Onsen and rotenburo, their outdoor cousins, are the crème de la crème of Japanese baths. Legally an onsen must use naturally hot water containing minerals and gases from designated groups, whereas sento usually contain treated water. While heated tap water soothes the soul, sulfur-infused water of an onsen is much better for your skin, and most onsen post the chemical composition of each bath, with the additional medicinal benefits - some are known for easing arthritis, digestive disorders and other ailments. Of course, you'll have to read some obscure kanji to understand all the lingo. Although most of Japan's best onsen are located far from metropolitan areas, they're not just the preserve of the inaka (countryside). There are a precious few stranded among the urban sprawl.

Azabu Juban Onsen/Koshinoyu
Despite its rather plain, public bath demeanor, Koshinoyu is well known for the mineral waters piped in from an actual hot spring. The bathing area is small and slightly dilapidated, save for a colorful mosaic of Lake Geneva. Although you might expect to find hipsters from this trendy area patronizing this onsen/sento, old folks, who are generally helpful and friendly, prevail. However, in the changing room, rules such as "no bathing in your underwear", "wash before entering the tub," "no towels in the water," etc. belie many a foreigner has had a soak in these famous waters. Brush up on your nihongo and bring a towel, soap and shampoo if you don't want to buy them. Azabu Juban Onsen, on the first floor is a little classier with two baths filled with the same thick "black water" at a comfortable 26 C, a cool stone bath and sauna cabin.
1-5-22 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku (Tel: 03-3404-2610)
first floor Azabu Juban Onsen open 11am-9pm (closed Tue); admission JY1260 (JY940 after 9pm), rental towel JY200; ground floor Koshinoyu open 3-11:30pm; admission JY400
Access: 10min walk from Roppongi subway stn.

Jindaiji Onsen Yukari
Recently opened in Chofu is Yukari Onsen whose alkali water comes from a depth of 1500m - three months of boring were required to reach it. The traditional bathhouse is constructed on the principles of feng shui and the New Age theme carries through to the varied selection of baths. Divided equally between the male and female sides, the majority of the 14 baths are rotenburo. Both sexes get eerily glowing red copper-lined baths - the men's is housed inside a cave - as well as saunas and natural baths. For some reason the women get two special Korean saunas designed to ease constipation (called the benpi sauna), whereas the more regular men chill out in a cool mist sauna kept at -2 C. Nestled among the trees, waterwheels and six-meter-high fountain are silky cypress baths, an herb bath enclosed in a glass gazebo and dinky individual tubs. After trying out the weird and wonderful waters, bathers stretch out in one of the tatami rooms and wait for the rest of their party to emerge.
3-39-11 Chofugaoka, Chofu-shi 182-0021 (Tel: 0424-99-7777)
Open 8am-10pm daily; admission JY1500 (JY1000 for members)  (Japanese only)

Access: Free shuttle-bus runs from JR Musashi-Sakai stn and Keio Chofu-shi stn every 45min. Regular buses run from Tustsujigaoka (15min) JR Kichijoji, Mitaka stns (20min).

Nishishinagawa Onsen Miyagyu
Six baths of natural spring water, including rotenburo, stone bath, jacuzzi and sauna.
2-18-4 Nishishinagawa, Shinagwa-ku (Tel: 03-3491-4856); open 1pm-2am (11am-2am weekends) (JY385, sauna JY565). Nearest stn: Oimachi line Shimoshinmei

Sanga no Yu
Bathing in the main onsen is nude, swimsuits (available for rent) are required for the co-ed pool. Facials (JY4000) and massages (JY3500) available.
4-15-30 Seta, Setagaya-ku (Tel: 03-3707-8221); open 10am-10pm (JY2300, includes towels and robe). Free shuttle bus from Futagotamagawa stn.



Bed, bath and beyond
A new breed of Eer-baths are taking the place of conveniently located sento and out-of-the-way onsen. Known as sauna, kenkou land, kua house or bathland, these leviathans of lather resemble the Western-style spa and offer an array of extras, such as massage, steam rooms and jet baths in modern surroundings. Many cater to weary salarymen and their OL counterparts, both of whom lounge about in their robes for hours after their soak, snoozing, reading, watching TV and snacking on beer and ramen in a restaurant area. Other bathlands include amenities for kids as well as their parents with game rooms, family baths and mixed lounging areas.

This five-story bathing complex in Ogikubo is open 24 hours and offers numerous watery ways for the whole family to stress-bust. Women often get short-changed when it comes to variety and amenities, but not at Yutopia. In addition to the usual array of saunas, steam rooms, jet and mineral baths, the all-female second floor has the Pulse Ball, a massage waterfall - heaven for the proverbially stiff shoulders (katakori) that are a national affliction, the Shape Wave bath (JY100) for slimming and the minus ion sauna that supposedly produces positive mental health. Men have similar a similar set up on the fourth floor, including an open-air bath with smooth stones and a denki bath, (electrified water that sends tingles that gradually build to a spasm through the brave bather's body). Although denki smacks of 19th century quackery, it's still popular. Much better for the body is the 40-minute massage (JY3000) available on the fifth floor, along with an arcade for kids and a family room for watching TV and movies. The third floor offers an array of restaurants with both Japanese and Western-style seating. A word of caution, this place gets packed on weekends.
Kamiogi 1-10-10, Ogikubo (Tel: 03-3398-4126)
Access: Adjacent to JR Ogikubo stn

Open 24hr; admission JY2200 men, JY1900 women

Green Plaza (Ladies Sauna, VIP Lounge and Sports Sauna)
In the heart of Kabukicho, Green Plaza is the ultimate time out hub. Virtually the entire building is devoted to relaxation. The entrance fee includes unlimited soaking and sauna, and a 40-minute shiatsu massage is available for an additional JY3260. Women begin their soaking sojourn on the ninth floor with its three different baths, a cold bath, 42°C jacuzzi and a still tub that's even hotter. From there they let the sauna and steam coax toxins from the skin. Then they don the robe and shorts provided and retire to the lounge upstairs. There they stretch out on pink leather chaises, primp in the vanity area, complete with everything they need to look their best, or grab a bite while waiting for their turn at the massage table. Both masseurs and masseuses give shiatsu so women wear their robes during the massage. The men's VIP lounge offers similar baths, although somewhat more elaborate, and even has an open-air bath on the 10th floor where salarymen take in the lights of Shinjuku. Athletic types flex at the Sports Sauna's gym before enjoying a post-workout soak. But those in search of a rubdown will have to head up to the VIP Lounge (JY2550 for 40min). If at the end of it all they're too tired to make it home, or too pruney to go out in public, they can stay over in Japan's largest capsule hotel on the fourth floor (men only).
1-29-2 Kabukicho, Shinjuku (Tel: 03-3207-5411)
Open 24hr (VIP Sauna 1pm-9am, 1pm-12am Sun); admission men JY1900 for entry after 6am, JY2300 from 4pm, JY2800 after 10pm; women JY2700 (6am-10pm), JY3300 (after 10pm)

Access: Opposite Seibu Shinjuku station next to the Milanoza Theater

Finlando Sauna
With a variety of baths, from the shocking electric bath to the heart-stopping cold one this middle-market kenkou land, inconspicuously located next to Liquid Room is great for a quick fix. Massage costs JY3060 (40min).
Koma-mae, Kabuki-cho (Tel: 03-3209-9196)
Open 24 hours; admission JY1900 before 5pm, JY2100 from 5pm, JY2600 from 12am (until 12pm next day)

Access: Shinjuku stn, in the Humax Pavilion B1, underneath the Liquid Room

Adam and Eve
Steam room, Finnish sauna, and hot and cold tubs. Korean exfoliating scrub down available (JY4000 for 30min). This is where Pierce Brosnan sweats it off when he's in town.
3-5-5 Nishi Azabu, Minato-ku (Tel: 03-5474-4455); open 24hr (JY3800). Nearest stn: Roppongi

The bare essentials
Not surprisingly, tubbing in Japan comes with a slew of rules and regulations (many unspoken) that often elude foreign first-timers. Knowing the ins and outs, as well as some key Japanese terms before venturing into sento, onsen or bathlands keeps embarrassing moments at a minimum and helps the uninitiated - and their fellow bathers - feel a lot more comfortable.

What should I take to the sento?
Although most sento have shampoo, soap and towels for sale, it's best to take your own. Larger onsen, saunas and bathlands usually provide everything you will need. Take two towels, one for the bath and one to dry off, and any post-bathing skin care products. It's acceptable for guys to shave at the sento - just be careful where you leave your razor - but women usually don't indulge in public depilation.

How many times should I wash before getting into the tub?
Wash thoroughly from top to toe at least once rinse, and then wash some more. If people are still looking at you suspiciously, repeat. Make sure that you rinse completely. Be careful not to splash water and suds at your fellow bathers and never let soap get into the bath water.

What should I do with my towel when I'm in the tub?
Your towel is used for washing and you should rinse it well until there are no suds left. Use it to protect your modesty as you enter the tub but avoid letting it get into the water. While soaking you can leave it on the side of the bath or fold it up and stick it on your head ojisan style.

If there's a sauna should I shower again before getting back into the bath?

If the water is too hot, can I add some cold?
Most onsen and sento are around 40°C, which is well below the pain threshold - although it may not feel like it sometimes. Hoshi says, "you shouldn't let the cold water flush into the tub to cool it without asking the other people first." Try easing yourself slowly into the tub after sluicing down with some of the hot water. If you overheat try a short yasumi on the side of the bath. If you become dizzy, get out and cool off and try some re-hydration - beer doesn't count.

Should I rinse after I get out?
Something that troubles many bathers is the dilemma of the final rinse down. Having marinated in the natural spring water, or trendy new concoction, should you rinse off all the goodness before toweling down. Resident expert, Hoshi's advice is that "it depends on the quality of water. When you go to the bath, you may see a sign showing the composition of the water, or you can ask the owner about it." If you've ventured into the coffee bath a rinse is probably a good idea.

How can I stop my skin from drying out after bathing?
See this week's Looking Good section for tips on winter skin care.

Some of the most audacious violations of bathing etiquette, according to Hoshi, are: guys that try to go into the women's bathroom by blundering in "by mistake," swimming in the tub, working out in a sauna cabin and gaijin who soak in their knickers.

Nihongo Bath Lingo



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