When you stroll around Tokyo or Kyoto in Japan, you will sometimes come across a high chimney. In Japan this can only mean one thing: 'bath house'. Originally, bath houses (sentou銭湯 in Japanese) were places in the city where a large bath tub and lots of showers were installed, where people got together at the end of the working day to soak in the hot water.
This article will introduce three things you should know about the Japanese bath house.
1. Viewing art while being naked
2. The water's color changes regularly
3. What is the drink of choice after having a bath?
1. In Japan, it is not allowed to enter public baths in swimsuits or underwear. Thus, all visitors are completely naked. And before those naked people arises what has become standard at the bath house: artwork on the walls in paint or tiles. (* for explanation on other manners in the bath house, see http://www.ota1010.com/sentou.cgi?code=e. ) All the paintings depict various beautiful natural sights in Japan, but paintings of Mt. Fuji remain a long-time favorite. Other popular paintings are of autumn leaves or waterfalls. Why is Mt. Fuji so popular? The reason for that lies in bath-house-history. Back in the day, when children would splash around in the baths, one bath house owner thought to himself: “what if I had a nice picture on the wall? Then, even the children would take a bath quietly, enjoying the view”. The picture he chose was that of Mt. Fuji. The reason for this was that Mt. Fuji is believed to bring good fortune in Japan, and the bath house owner hoped good fortune would mean more customers coming to his bath house. Thus he invited a painter and shortly thereafter he had the mountain covering one of his bath's walls. This news spread fast under other bath house owners, and one after the other ordered paintings of Mt. Fuji on their bath's walls. It almost became a competition who had the nicest painting. This is what led to the tradition of art inside bath houses.
2. These days, houses in Japan are all equipped with baths. Although the necessity to go to the public bath in order to become clean is no longer there, lots of people still frequent the many bath houses in the country. It is the changing water that makes it enjoyable for these people to come so often. What changes about the water is for instance its color, its beneficial effects or its scent, so you can enjoy the changes with all of your senses. Sometimes they offer black baths with the deep smell of dark roast coffee, or pure white 'milk baths'. Or sometimes you can encounter medicinal plants or fruits floating around in the bath water. If you can appreciate these variations, you might also become hooked on Japanese bath houses.
3. When you get out from the bath, you will probably feel really thirsty. What Japanese people drink at this moment is neither green tea nor cider, but what is called 'milk-coffee'. It is not known exactly why 'milk-coffee' has become the standard bath house drink, but it might well be that since a young age, Japanese are told that they should drink 'milk-coffee' after bathing and it has stuck with everyone since. Also, especially for men, there is a special way of drinking 'milk-coffee'. With the 'milk-coffee' in one hand and the other on your waist, you gulp it down in one go, followed by a 'Phaaaa!' (the exclamation sound of sheer deliciousness). It's like they're showing off how good their 'milk-coffee' is to any bystanders. It often works, because it is said that many people pick up their own 'milk-coffee' after seeing someone else drink.
Apart from this, there are many other interesting things such as goodies and communication opportunities at your local bath house, but I invite you to see for yourself. When you visit Japan, make sure you check out the local bath house near your accommodation.