Soaking it in closer to home at a Tokyo Onsen. You don’t need to travel for a relaxing bath, say Wendy Wasserman and Hiroko Sasaki.

It is the middle of the day, and two good friends in their mid-30s are quietly chatting about this, that and the other thing. A group of older women sit nearby, happily enjoying each other’s company as they smile and gossip. Another woman is alone, her eyes are gently closed and she is on the verge of sleep. Where are you? At your local coffee shop? On the train? In a park? No, you are not at any of these places. You are at one of Japan’s public bathhouses.

Soaking in a public bath is considered one of the most quintessential experiences of Japanese culture. At the baths, strangers, friends, family and neighbors alike take a break from their busy lives to relax, learn the news of the day, cleanse their bodies and rest their minds. Public bathing in Japan is not a new thing. It has been part of Japanese culture for centuries. One theory suggests that its popularity is traceable back to the Shinto tradition stemming from the requisite pre-wash before entering a shrine or other holy place (this would be part of the same tradition that requires visi­tors to wash hands and mouths   before   entering shrines even today). An­other theory suggests that Japanese embrace  public bathing as one of the few indigenous cultural acts that cannot be traced back to China. Regardless of why Japanese love public bathing, there are baths in every prefecture around the country.

Japanese public baths are known as onsen or sento. Both are large pools of hot water designed for a cleans­ing deep soak. The water is usually hot or warm, and sometimes contains minerals that are good for the skin as well as for general well being. Onsen are considered more recreational, where bathers leisurely soak, relax and enjoy the moment. Sento are more practical facilities, designed for daily washing, and were origi­nally developed when typical Japanese homes did not include private bathtubs. Another difference between onsen and sento is the water. Onsen water is warmed directly by volcanic springs and then adjusted to a suitable soaking temperature. Sometimes, the water can appear brown or amber, which is due to the min­erals coming from the spring. Sento can be tap water heated to the right temperature. Sometimes minerals are added once the bath is filled and sometimes not. At both onsen and sento there is an anteroom where bathers must rinse off before and after the plunge. With very few exceptions, the baths and anterooms are separated by gender. With no exceptions, the bathers are naked.

Many onsen are attached to ryokan (traditional Japanese inns, the majority of which are located in smaller cities or in the countryside) or are even the center of small villages devoted to the soak. Dogo Onsen near Matsuyama in Ehime prefecture on Shikoku is reported to be one of the country’s oldest such villages, where even today bathers walk the streets in yukata (cotton robes) and geta (wooden slipper shoes). Closer to home, Hakone, Nikko or places in Gunma Prefecture are easy onsen day trips from Tokyo. Yet, for those new to the onsen experience, or those not wanting to journey far, there are several onsen options in the city itself.

In Azabu Juban, look for the Azabu Juban Onsen a neighborhood institution that has been owned and operated by the same family since 1948, making it in Tokyo. This onsen has two floors, both with waters spring-fed from 500 meters below the street. Downstairs, the facilities are basic, just an anteroom and two simple baths, one very hot and one warm, perfect for a soak on a budget of time and/or money. Upstairs, there is a single bath and an anteroom, plus a small sauna and a large tatami mat for post-bath relaxation or even large gatherings. There is also a small cafe, where coffee, snacks and/or meals are available. So, with the entrance fee, it is possible to spend all day upstairs, taking a nap, reading a book or simply daydreaming while soaking in a quiet place in the middle of the city.

For a more modern and sophisticated onsen experience, try Spa LaQua at Tokyo Dome City. Only two and a half years old, this onsen has more of a full service spa atmosphere than a traditional old-style bathhouse. Here, there are several different baths (different lineups in men’s and women’s), including a hydro foot bath, two indoor warm soaking baths, and a rotenburo (outdoor bath), where you can hear the roller coaster rumble by. There are a variety of sauna options as well, including two separate medium temperature saunas, the Termale wet sauna (similar to a Western style steamroom), the Deep Sea Salt sauna and the Old Log hot sauna. The relaxation room, which dramatically overlooks Tokyo Dome City and the night lights, is outfitted with oversized lounge chairs, many of which have dedicated television screens. With pre-booking and additional fees, there is also a selection of body care and massage services, a hair and nail salon, a Tai­wanese esthetic salon, and a foot care salon as well as an oxygen bar. The latest lines of Shiseido and Kanebo cosmetics are available for women. There are also four restaurants and cafes on site.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba, which opened in 2003, is often referred to as an Onsen Theme Park. After paying the entrance fee and choos­ing from one of the 18 available yukata styles, visi­tors enter Hirokouji Street, a recreated central square from Tokyo during the Edo period. There are a variety of shops, restaurants, relaxation rooms, parlor game rooms and massage and other body care facilities all within the complex. The baths themselves, sourced from 1,400 meters below, come in a variety of different shapes, sizes and temperature. Inside, the 100 Person Balh is nestled next lo a series of smaller baths heated to different degrees. The rotenburo baths offer some sin­gle person soaking barrels or stone lined bigger baths. There is even an outside and mixed-gender foot bath in the gardens behind the onsen, as well as an outdoor play area for little children.

Regardless of a bathhouse’s style, history or loca­tion, there are some basic rules that apply to all. First, always wash before and after entering the bath itself. Soap and shampoo is usually provided in the ante­rooms (or bring your own), but neither suds nor towels should ever enter the actual bathwater. Feel comfort­able wearing yukata, around the bathhouse, with not much underneath, but make sure to tie it up left over right (the other way is reserved for corpses). If the bath water itself feels too hot, take time to ease in. Never try to adjust the temperature of the bath by adding in additional water. Finally, if you are new to the onsen experience, follow the advice of Jeff Asgard of, a booking agency for those wanting to stay at ryokan and experience onsen around the country, “Leave as much of your cultural baggage at home as possible and just enjoy doing something new. An onsen is something that all people should ex­perience while in Japan. Not to do so would be a ter­rible loss of opportunity.”

This is just a sampling of the several onsen in Tokyo.

Spa LaQua at Tokyo Dome City
1-3-61 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku (closest stop: Korakuen or Suidohashi)
Tel. 03-3817-4173
¥2,565 entrance fee. Surcharge after 12am. Children from 6-18 allowed until 6pm, only if accompanied with an adult. 11am-9am following morning. Open all year.

Oedo Onsen Monogatari
2-57 Oume, Eto-ku (closest stop: Telecom Center)
Tel. 03-5500-1126
¥2.900 adult, ¥1,600 child.
Lower fees after 6pm. Extra fees apply for massage, salons, etc.
11am-9am following morning. Open all year.

For more information on onsen and ryokan contact:

by Wendy Wasserman and Hiroko Sasaki