I was reading Sara's last post about Akita and her mentions of onsen (hotsprings) and I thought I should write a note about public bathing in Japan. Japan, being a mountainous country absolutely riddled with volcanoes, has several thousand onsen（温泉). Japan, also being an island country with limited natural resources and therefore a need to conserve fuel, has always used these onsen as places to bathe. Because the onsen were communal traditions concerning the use of onsen and the proper way to bathe developed. Certain days were for men, others for women, and still others were "mixed" days for whole familys to enjoy bathing together. In the past before one entered an onsen one used a bucket full of water to wet oneself down. Then one scrubbed oneself down from top to toes or toes to top with soap and a scrubby brush. A second bucket of water was applied to remove any suds and then one was ready to enter the bath. All of this is accomplished sitting down on a low stool or crouching. Japanese do not bath standing up.
By bathing outside of the bath ancient Japanese were able to ensure that the communal waters of the onsen stayed cleaned and fresh. The bathing traditions that developed as part this outdoor bathing in naturally occuring hotsprings were carried over into private baths in family homes, ofuro（お風呂), and into public baths, sentou（銭湯). These bathing traditons are continued today and while private family baths are typically used by one person at a time public baths and onsen are still communal. Going bathing now, as it was then, is a highly relaxing and friendly event. Friends and families go to the baths together. They use the time to talk, catch up, gossip and in general reconnect with others. During the cold winter months baths are especially nice for getting toasty warm and relaxing muscles tightened by the cold.
During the time I have lived in Japan I have visited onsen, sentou, made use of a private family bath and I have enjoyed them all. I have to say that one of the things I will miss most about Japan when I returned home is trips to onsen and sentou during the fall, winter, and early spring.