How to take a bath in Japan

One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.

Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.

traditional japanese bathroom

A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right

If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.

Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:

  • No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
  • Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
  • In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
typical japanese bathroom

Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.

typical japanese bathroom

Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!

Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.

In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.

Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).

typical western bath

A typical western bath

Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.

typical japanese bath

Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!

One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!

control panel for a japanese bath

Control panel for our Japanese bath at home

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Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.