Public baths in Kyoto

August 6, 2018

Yu Sakamoto and Daiki Tabuchi

Today Japanese culture is evaluated from abroad in every aspect. Especially in Kyoto, there are many cultural places to attract visitors from around the world. And Kyoto is also famous for hot springs. But this time I would like to introduce public baths. Because hot springs are already famous among many tourists, so this time we want to reveal the charm and history of public baths and how they are different to hot springs.

What are public baths and hot springs?

Firstly, let’s take a look at the features of public baths and hot springs. As the name suggests, the public bath is just a bath for the public. They began in Kyoto in (794-1185). It is said that they spread throughout Japan with Buddhism. On the other hand, hot springs have natural water. If the water temperature of the hot spring source is 25 degrees or more, and it includes any one of the 19 designated ingredients of the hot spring law in the country, it is regarded as a hot spring.






The differences between public baths and hot springs

There are two significant differences between hot springs and public baths. First, hot springs use natural water from springs, while public baths do not. Second, public baths have no special rules because the water is not directly from a spring, so it is checked for safety already. In other words, since hot springs use water that is drawn from nature, they are concerned about sanitation, so they must be well managed by the law under the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to ensure that they are safe for customers.

The history of public baths

 People do not know how the tradition of public baths in Japan began. However, according to “Keityoukenbunroku”, a book written about the history of Japan, published in 1614, Ise Yoichi built the first public bath in 1591 on Zenigamebashi, which is in Ibaragi prefecture. People were joyous, and his public bath was very popular. In the 17th century, public baths became popular and could be found in a lot of towns. The bath of this era was a kind of steam bath. Water was put in the bottom of the bathtub. A door was placed in the entrance of the bathroom to prevent the steam from escaping. However, it had one problem. When people opened and closed the door, steam did escape. So, some people solved this problem by making a type of bath called zakuroguchi. They put a bathtub in a small room covered by a wooden plate, then dropped the board low from the entrance ceiling to prevent steam from escaping.







The water bath was developed at the end of the Edo era. This bath was called sueburo. It became popular among ordinary families. In this era, people needed to put hot water in the bathtub, but after that, they developed a way to heat up the bath water by placing a tube of iron under the tub that was connected to a fire. In the Edo era, the public bath was mixed bathing, meaning men and women could bathe together. However, the inside of zakuroguchi was dark because there were no lights, so many problems occurred involving sex. This type of problem was not easily reformed, so between 1841 and 1843 there was a severe crackdown. After that, many public baths changed the rules. They put a wall in the center of the bathtub to separate the genders, and they made separate times for men and women to take a bath. Other public baths became single-sex.

Famous public baths and hot springs in Kyoto

Now, let’s look at some famous public baths and hot springs in Kyoto. First of all, the famous hot spring in Kyoto is Arashiyama Hot Spring. You can see the famous Togetsu Bridge and the beautiful views of Arashiyama from the outdoor hot spring. Also, there are various kinds of hot springs and many sightseeing spots around there. A famous public bath in Kyoto is Nishikiyu which is located very close to the Nishiki market located in the center of Kyoto City. This is very popular among tourists. The building is large, and it’s retro style takes you back in time. In Nishiki, there are also various events, such as live music, rakugo (a short Japanese comedy story), and places to buy kimonos and yukatas cheaply. As well as the public bath, you can enjoy the local charm and lively atmosphere around Nishiki.

Characteristics of Kyoto’s public baths

Currently, there are about 150 public baths in Kyoto. Many places use traditional building methods and are set in kyomachiya, which are traditionally built townhouses. Kyoto’s public baths have three features.

  1. Tile pictures

When you imagine the Japanese public bath, I think you will imagine a Mt.Fuji picture above the tub. Kyoto’s public baths are decorated with various tile pictures. In addition to the main bath, you can also see tile pictures attached to the upper parts of the dressing rooms. These tile artworks are the original style of Kyoto’s public baths.







Tile picture of Mt.Fuji

  1. Groundwater

Public baths in Kyoto have a well, so using groundwater is another major feature. Kyoto is blessed with good water.

  1. Noren shop curtains

These shop curtains can be seen hanging at the entrance of shops and public baths in Japan. There are three styles of shop curtains: Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. The Kyoto style is divided into three, and it has an extended length with a break in the middle.








As you can see, public baths have a long history and original culture, and there are also the differences between public baths and hot springs. However, what they have in common is that they can both relieve tiredness, so both types of bathing places can be a great way to relax and experience a Japanese tradition.