So - Japanese baths. Everybody's got questions. Short answers:
• Yes, nakedness is involved
• Communal baths are segregated
• Japanese baths are for relaxing, not for getting clean.
Basic hotels don't usually have communal baths. In the bathroom, in addition to the sink and toilet there will be a tub. It is shorter, narrower and deeper than a standard North American tub. The bathroom floor is usually raised to accommodate this - you step up into the bathroom and are very careful about not falling out into the room at night!
The idea is to have a good scrub and shower and then, once you are nice and clean you fill the tub and relax. The bath is a place where clean people sit and relax.
Some high rise hotels have communal baths. They are usually on the top floor and/or the roof. They usually open at 3:00 pm and remain open through the night until about 10:00 am, being closed for cleaning during the day.
Every hotel we've stayed at in Japan has provided a robe or pyjamas, whether or not they have communal baths. When it is time for a bath you put on your robe or pj's, gather up your towels, put on your hotel issued slippers and head for the bath. The hotel provides one regular bath towel and a smaller towel. It is about 6 inches wide and 18 inches long and is a more loosely woven terry fabric than a regular towel. It goes with you to the bath.
Fortunately for those of us who are illiterate the Japanese are rigorous about colour coding men's and women's facilities - blue curtains always mean men's, red always means women's. Same thing for public toilets. We've also learned the kanji for Man and Woman to be double certain!
Upon arrival you leave your slippers on a rack by the front. There's usually a locker to stow valuables. Next up is the dressing room. Racks on the wall hold baskets, into which you put your bath towel and all your clothes. There is a counter here with sinks and hair dryers and hand lotion and hairbrushes for use later.
From the dressing room we pass through a door into the bathing area. To one side will be a row of cleaning stations. Each one has a low stool, a mirror, hand held shower sprayer, taps, a basin, and big bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner. The stool is very low, it is better than crouching, but after a long day it is a long way down. Anyhow, you settle yourself and begin the washing. Soap and water, using your towel for your back you wash yourself. Wash or at least thoroughly rinse your hair. Take a surreptitious peak around. Everyone else is still washing. Rinse off every speck of soap. Start over and wash all of yourself again. Thoroughly. By the time I have washed myself as thoroughly as I possibly can and those around me are still not done I usually think 'screw it, I'm going in'. Get up carefully - it's a long way down and you and everything around you is wet. Rinse your wash station down completely and return your stool and wash basin to its original position.
Some hotels have an outdoor bath. You may be thirteen floors up, but when you step outside the effect is that you have stumbled upon a rock lined pool in the forest. The area is screened, so private. The only downside to the outside pool is that is usually so freakin' hot that I spend more time getting ready to bath than I actually do in the pool. Your hand towel comes with you, but never actually goes into the bath - wrap it around your hair, fold into a square and put on your head or leave it on a rock by the side.
The water pours constantly into the bath, draining out over one or another low edge as people get in. The water is crystal clear in these baths.
Inside there is another bath, usually not quite so fiercely hot. A fancier place may also have a cold pool and a sauna. A less fancy place may have just the one bath - sometimes quite large, sometimes the size of a pool table. Often I'm the only one in the place, but sometimes I have company. Once I'm done it is back to the dressing room to reverse the process. After a day seeing the sights it is sue nice to have a hot bath before bedtime.
I don't have any pictures from the communal baths because, as you imagine, cameras are a big no-no. But, I'm not done with the subject. We stayed two nights at a hot-spring spa, which merits a posting all of its own. And for that I have some pictures, so stay tuned!