CULTURAL ETIQUETTE

Lathering Up in Japan

What to know before visiting a Japanese bathhouse.

By Devon Brown, Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009, 12:00 AM

Never bare it all (Illustration by Kate Francis)

"Devon-san, you wash like you're Japanese!" my colleague Kimiko gushed after we had spent an evening at a Tokyo bathhouse. Although embarrassed by the timing of her compliment—she said it in front of a tableful of fellow teachers—I was beaming inside: I had cracked the subtle code of bathing in Japan.

Never bare it all
At most bathhouses, you can rent a towel the size of a magazine centerfold for about $1. This isn't for face washing—it's strictly for cover. Although bathhouses are separated into single-sex quarters, decorum dictates that you conceal your private parts when walking around. The aptly named "modesty towel" doesn't hide much, so pick your areas wisely.

Pre-soak scrub down
Shower before you bathe. Cleanliness is extremely important to the Japanese, especially at bathhouses, so all visitors are expected to wash before slipping into the tubs. And we're not talking a quick soap and rinse—you need to scour as if you're being paid per bubble. Squeaky-clean from head to toe? You're prepped to take the plunge!