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.


Funaoka Onsen

by Maki Okada; Shoma Horikawa & Atsushi Nanjo

A Special Bathhouse Experience

The entrance gate to Funaoka Onsen is very large, and after passing through and entering the building the visitor is immediately struck by the beautifully tiled walls. The first thing you need to do is remove your shoes, and then pay the entrance fee at the small reception stand. If necessary, you can buy soap, shampoo, towels, etc, here too. This is a fine sento, or publicbath.

Fee: Adults 410 yen
Child 150 yen
Infant 60 yen

A short way along the corridor you will find two separate entrances to the bathing area with special curtains called ‘noren’ across them. The red one signifies that this is the bathing area for women, and the blue one, the entrance for men.

The changing rooms for each area are large and there are many lockers available in the rooms for storing personal belongings. Between the changing rooms, there is a wall which has a fantastic head jamb with a large, powerful, long-nosed goblin’s face fixed to the ceiling.

Funaoka onsen has a variety of baths for you to enjoy, for example a medicated bath, a cold-water plunge bath, a jet stream bath, an esthetic bubble bath, a very hot bath and even a bath with a mild electric current running through it. There are also two kinds of open-air spa baths (rotenburo), which are separated from the others, and it is possible to spend some peaceful moments here in the fresh air.

Outside the changing rooms, there is a vending machine and a space where you can rest and mingle with local people after bathing. Since most of the people who come here are very kind, even if you are visiting for the first time, you will almost certainly feel at ease. The person on duty at the small reception stand was very friendly and happy to answer all our questions.

You can get a true sense of the ‘real’ Japan from the appearance and experience of Funaoka Onsen, and after a bath, it is most enjoyable to walk around the nearby shopping street and local area and take in some sights. I thoroughly recommend you go to Funaoka Onsen, a bathhouse that has remained unchanged since olden times.

Special features

Funaoka Onsen is a very famous place, and was opened as a bathhouse in 1923 in the Taisho era. Therefore, there are many special features in this bathhouse from this time, such as wooden carvings, sculptured tiles, and other antiques.

Ranma are wooden panels used as decorative transoms above the sliding paper doors found in many traditional Japanese homes and establishments. The ones in Funaoka Onsen are particularly ornate and actually offer something of a history lesson on the Taisho era. The tiles are very beautiful, too, and present a rich and colorful mosaic of ceramic art.

Originally, the bathing areas were fixed, one side for men and one side for women, as is still the case in many Kyoto sento. However, now in Funaoka onsen, the bathing areas alternate on a daily basis. As the two sides have different features, such as an outside rock bath on one side and a cedar wood outside bath (hinokiburo) on the other, both genders can enjoy all the bathhouse has to offer. Of course, you would have to visit over two days to experience everything.

The customers

A variety of people come to Funaoka Onsen, for example, the elderly, parents with children, students, and businessmen at the end of a long workday. And it is not only local residents who make use of this unique establishment; many tourists also come, including a number of foreign visitors. At times, this gives Funaoka Onsen a really international atmosphere.

There are many images to take in when you are in the bathing area. Here are some observations (on the male side)

  • Elderly men chatting amiably in the outdoor hot spring bath
  • A middle-aged man with a contented look on his face watching television in the sauna
  • A young man facing the wall, eyes closed in meditation, while immersed up to his waist in the Chinese medicine bath
  • Two young boys gasping at the freezing temperature of the water in the cold water plunge bath
  • Everybody seemed to be savoring the public bath in their own way.

There is also much to do upon leaving the bathing area. You can weigh yourself in the changing room, and dry yourself in the cooling breeze from an electric fan. Perhaps you would like to buy and drink some coffee milk while watching the television. The coffee milk is the most delicious beverage on offer, in our opinion, but there are a variety of other drinks to choose from.

In short, it is possible to enjoy Funaoka Onsen in a number of ways. You really only need to try everything to find the best way for you.


82-1 Minamifunaoka
(the south side of Kuramaguchi and Senbon streets)
Tel: (075) 441-3735

Opening hours
Mon – Sat: 3.00 pm ~ 1.00 am
Sundays/Holidays: 8.00 am ~ 1.00 am