Photo by Clio Tilton

On a recent concert tour in Japan, I had the chance to visit several thermal baths and to chat with people about the tradition of bathing. I was fascinated by their differences with American spas. Japanese thermal baths are about luxury: Like Western-style spas, the experience is about taking time to relax. They are, however, unique in their emphasis on feeling close to nature; the best hot springs are often tucked away in the mountains. If it sounds tempting, luckily, San Francisco has it’s own spot to sample Japanese communal bathing: Kabuki Springs and Spa in Japantown.

Photo by Clio Tilton

The word onsen in Japanese means, literally, “hot spring.” Until the second half of the 20th century, few Japanese homes had their own baths. Many people went to neighborhood communal baths to bathe in the evenings. Although this is no longer the case, the culture of communal bathing in Japan remains in the form of onsen, a sort of national leisure activity.

For Japanese, staying a night in an onsen is the ultimate indulgence. Onsen are a way to relax and commune with nature. The most coveted onsen are off the beaten path, in the middle of nature (in Japanese, hitou, literally, “secret hot spring” ). Outdoor baths, or rotenburo, are also highly sought-after; they offer a way to experience the seasons that are culturally so important in Japan.

Most good onsen have outdoor baths where you can be in nature while relaxing in the mineral waters. Photo by Clio Tilton.

Hot springs are also believed to have certain healing properties, depending on the mineral content of the water. Some are said to help to heal broken bones, skin, or even aid in fighting cancer.

A visit to an onsen always follows pretty much the same schedule-even the symbol for an onsen on a map of Japan offers a glimpse into the bathing ritual. The symbol is a pool of water with three lines of steam drifting up from it. Each line of the steam represents one of the times that guests bathe in the mineral-rich water during their stay at an onsen: once upon arrival, once after eating the evening meal, and once in the morning before leaving. Food is also an important part of the onsen experience, with dinner sometimes involving 15 courses (keep in mind that Japanese cuisine is very delicate, and a “course” can be more of a morsel).

Upon arriving at the onsen, guests are shown to their rooms, where there are green tea and snacks as well as a yukata (a sort of kimono-style bathrobe) to wear during their stay.

A room at an onsen. Photo by Clio Tilton

The baths are generally separated by sex, although in some more remote hot springs they still have mixed-gender baths. Actually, the tradition of men and women bathing together in hot springs was standard up until the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, when Japan began to open to the west. Mixed-gender onsen largely disappeared because of their “taboo” status in western society. Japanese communal bathing has its own strict rules: just as you would never wear shoes in a Japanese house, you would never enter a communal bath without first washing yourself thoroughly.

Individual washing stations at an onsen. Photo by Clio Tilton

In most cases, guests are not allowed to wear swimsuits or bring towels into the baths, as it makes baths harder to clean. The baths are normally quite hot, making bathing a popular winter activity.

If this sounds appealing, San Francisco’s Kabuki Springs and Spa has Japanese baths. There are also hot springs north of San Francisco in Sonoma and Napa counties. Kabuki, in Japantown, originated as a Japanese bath and spa for men in the 1970s, and has grown and changed over its 40-year history. Since 1999, Kabuki has had three days for men and three for women. (Tuesdays are mixed-gender.) It also has an expanded range of massage and spa treatments. The current director shared some interesting comments with me on how San Franciscans react to the experience of a communal bath. “In general, the mostly local clientele is comfortable with Japanese-style bathing [the Japanese custom for bathing is to be nude]. Many newcomers are trepidatious at first, but embrace the experience once they see the cleanliness and the respectful atmosphere of the baths. One difficult concept for clients to get used to, however, is the alternating days for men and women.”  Kabuki has only one bathing area that alternates days for men and women.

Kabuki’s main bathing area. Photo by Frankie Franekey via Kabuki Springs.

On my visit to Kabuki a few weeks ago I was impressed by how relaxing the whole experience was. After paying the $22-25 entrance fee to the baths, you can stay as long as you like, taking your time to wash, try the steam room and sauna, and of course the hot bath which is central to the bathing experience. While there are no outdoor baths, there are plenty of other perks that lead to a rejuvenating experience. There are lounge chairs for resting between the different baths/saunas, as well as ice-cold washcloths, cucumber slices, salt for scrubbing your body, and refreshing drinks. The atmosphere is relaxing; warm lighting and a large open space allows you to feel you have your own space and comfort. Talking is generally discouraged (unlike in Japanese baths) and there is a small gong to strike if you feel it is getting too loud. (On my visit, the bath attendant did strike the gong when the baths got busier.)

Overall, this San Francisco spot is not to be missed, especially on a cold, gray day.

Kabuki Springs & Spa
1750 Geary Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94115
Open daily 10a””9:45p

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