Many overseas people balk at the idea of bathing publicly, for reasons of shyness or concerns about health and cleanliness. Although travelers must indeed bathe in nothing but their birthday suit and with only a flannel (face-cloth) for modesty, at least one need not be worried about hygiene. Because:
Indeed, it is taboo to enter a Japanese bath when dirty.
Although it sounds odd at first, it makes sense, as baths are purely for relaxation, recuperation and recreation. The actual business of cleaning happens around the outside of the bathroom.
A Japanese person will either just have had a shower at home, leaving them needing nothing more than a few splashes of water to remove any final traces of dirt, or they will have made use of the on-site cleaning facilites first.
Surrounding any Ofuro, one will usually find an array of taps and small bowls. In modern Ofuros, you are also provided with the "luxury" of a seat a shower and warm water! One goes about cleaning oneself here. Bringing a face-towel, a Japanese person will shower and rinse before soaping up and thoroughly scrubbing down head to toe to remove any dirt. Hair is usually shampooed, and one might also wish to shave at this point too.
After a final thorough rinse to remove any soap and shampoo from one's body and especially from the flannel, one is ready to enter the bath.
Don't be bashful. On any posters you may have seen, the bathers will probably have been wearing towels; this was purely for printability's sake! Japanese are far less concerned about nudity than their western counterparts seem to be and thus bathe nude.
Japanese bathers will leave theirs on the side of the bath, or place it over their heads when using ro-ten-buro (outdoor baths), but rarely submerse it.
The water in an ofuro is usually very hot (between 40 and 43 degrees) so prolonged bathing is usually not possible, lasting only five to ten minutes or so before cooling off in the showers. Locals can linger longer, as they will have become seemingly immune to the sizzling temperatures.
Also, for very obvious reasons, it is generally forbidden to enter public baths with a cold, flu or other contagious illnesses.
No stay in Japan is complete without a good bathe in a relaxing Ofuro. Onsens (hot-springs) are especially prized because of their wonderful mineral water and the numerous health enhancing effects that they bring.
Craig Lloyd, Jan 2000.