Healing, cleaning, happy bath houses!
April 26, 2012 7:27 AM   Subscribe

Bath houses and traditions around the world?

So I have a trip coming up to Budapest and was told that I should go "bathing". I have heard of Korean bath houses, Swedish saunas, Russian baths, Japanese hot springs and such and I've always been intrigued by them. I am dying to go to one (as I never have been to one before) but I'm super nervous and don't know if I actually have the nerve. So a few questions :

- What are different bath houses and traditions around the world?
- Have you been to these different type of bath houses? How was your experience? What was the proper etiquette? Do you have any bath house recommendations (any part/city in the world)
- How did you work up the nerve? (for nude and not nude bath houses?)
- Budapest specific, any recommendations, warnings, advice?

Sorry lots of questions. Thanks!
posted by xicana63 to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Been to Iceland - there are public hotbaths all over. you rent a locker and a towel. you shower, nude, in the locker room before enjoying the hot tubs. Both conversation and solitude are acceptable.
posted by entropone at 7:29 AM on April 26, 2012

Outside of steaming and cooling, the primary activities at a banya are eating a lot of filling Russian food and getting drunk on vodka or cognac. The ones around me, at least, tend to have a restaurant and bar inside, but (like many other Russian-owned establishments) you can BYO with no issues or extra fees.
posted by griphus at 7:33 AM on April 26, 2012

Been to Iceland and Japan. Iceland yes you shower nude, but then the actual hotbath was co-ed and you can wear a bathing suit. In Japan, you are separated by sex, and shower and bath nude. Though I only went to one place in each location, so perhaps there are other options I'm unaware of.
posted by Grither at 7:34 AM on April 26, 2012

I went to a Hamman in Istanbul. Men and women were totally separate. I wore bikini bottoms which was common with tourists but many Turks were nude. You sit around soaking up the steam until you lie down on the big marble slab in the middle where a naked woman SCRUBS you down. Then you can go back to the little alcoves to rinse off.

As for nerve, the same as any time I'm traveling -eh, I'm a tourist so if I make a msitake they'll understand.
posted by raccoon409 at 7:46 AM on April 26, 2012

The baths in Budapest are great! We went to Szechenyi, which has two main sections, in and out. Outside has three large pools, one for swimming laps, and two hot pools. One is hotter than the other. Inside is room after room of different temperature pools and saunas. It was fairly easy to negotiate, much easier than the Hamman in Istanbul. Memail if you want more info.
posted by sulaine at 7:53 AM on April 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hamam the turkish bath! There are some in Budapest. When I went to one (not in Budapest) it was also seperated for men and women, everyone was nude and had a type of muslin cloth to wrap around/sit on. And I have been to a banya in Murmansk. They belief 'beating' you with tree branches is part of a healthy banya visit. And yes there was a lot of vodka and lots of foods like drid and canned fish.
posted by travelwithcats at 7:56 AM on April 26, 2012

I've been to a Turkish bath in Instanbul and it was AWESOME. I completely understand why people hang out in those places. Happily for me it was a place that had signs in english indicating what the etiquette was, so no guesswork was involved. I wore bathing suit bottoms but no top. Everyone else was full on naked.

When in Rome...
posted by blue_bicycle at 8:34 AM on April 26, 2012

I went to the Kiraly Bath in Budapest some 15 years ago and it was... authentic. A bit intimidating. An experience I'm glad I had.

I've also been to the Russian Baths in NYC a few times. I enjoyed it but I guess it was actually a front for prostitution at the time (mid-1990s) and I didn't realize it then. Whoops.

It was all-women when I went to both of those, so it was all-naked. Although I'm on the modest side in my daily life, when everyone else is naked it doesn't feel like a big deal -- this turned out to be true even at the co-ed hippie hot springs, Breitenbush, that I went to in Oregon. Oh, I've also been to a Korean spa here in the Seattle area and liked that too. And I've taken more saunas than I can count, mostly in Finland.

They all have the same basic structure: walk in, pay, get a locker, take a shower, don't get dressed, and soak. You could wrap yourself in a towel between the shower and the tub if you'd be more comfortable. Usually you start in a warm tub and make your way to the hottest, then often there's a cold tub to plunge in. Bring a metal or plastic water bottle, and a combination lock for your locker. Often there are massages and such that you can get; you pay for those when you first come in, but you might have to schedule them ahead of time. Conversation is usually pretty minimal.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:56 AM on April 26, 2012

In Japan, for both a sento (local bathhouse) and an onsen (hot spring, often with an associated spa), you wash (usually sitting on a stool at a low faucet) before entering the main bath, cold pool, or any of the saunas or steam rooms that might be present. Genders are segregated, and everyone is nude, but you do usually have a medium-size washcloth to hold over your genitals while not in the pool. Traditionally, people would use a dipper to take water out of the main bath to wash with, but now there is usually a row of faucets and stools along one wall, or in a separate area.

Tattoos are often banned in fancier establishments, but will not usually present a problem in neighborhood sento, or outdoor onsen in more isolated locations.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:10 AM on April 26, 2012

I've been to some banyas in Russia. I can't say how they compare with the ones in Budapest, which I imagine are maybe gentler.

In Russia, you go naked and there are separate sections for men and women. They give you flip flops to wear. Usually, you pay extra for a towel, and proper etiquette says that you use it to sit on. If you want to keep up with the locals, you try to tolerate incredible heat. The other women in the banya complain that it's not hot enough. They tell the matron in charge to pour more water on the rocks. They may beat each other with birch leaves purchased on entry, and may offer to beat you, or insist on beating you (because you're doing it wrong!). They get annoyed if you don't close the door behind you quickly enough. If you last long enough, the 'session' ends and the matron shoos everyone out and sweeps out whatever leaves have fallen on to the floor. Either then, or when you're overcome, you go out for a while and someone (your friend or a large naked Russian woman who tell you you're doing it wrong!) pours a bucket of cold water over your head. After a while, another round begins and you do it all over again. Outside the banya, in the locker/showers room, you do such things as eat, gossip and exfoliate with coffee grounds. Often there are (very cheap) spa services available too.

Working up the nerve? There's no need for vanity or self-consciousness. Seriously, no one cares. It's such a fantastic experience.
posted by kitcat at 10:22 AM on April 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Just wanted to clarify - as griphus said, you steam (sauna) in a banya; there's typically no actual bathing.
posted by kitcat at 10:26 AM on April 26, 2012

I've been to Japanese hot springs and local baths. Here's the general procedure:

1. Go into the womens' section, put your things in a locker, and get completely naked.
1a. If you're in a really small neighbourhood bath, realize that the old man in his 70s who took your 400 yen at the door has a direct line of vision! Freak out, but then stop for a moment to think about the fact that this guy has been working here for years. You do not have anything he has not seen, and he's not paying any attention. Relax. But hurry into the bathing room, because at least the door is frosted.
2. Sit down on a stool to take your shower. Other bathers are probably around, scrubbing their bodies and hair. In a Japanese public bath, etiquette is to get super clean before you go into the pools. At a big fancy place, interesting soaps and cleansers will be provided, but in a small neighbourhood bath, you need to bring your own.
3. Enjoy the hot spring! Some onsen, or even sento, have pools with herbs in them or electric baths (that's a whole 'nother story). You should rinse off between pools, using a dipper of cold water from the cold water pool. You can watch the other bathers and copy them. Wearing a towel around your waist between pools is fine, but don't take it into the water.
4. There's also usually a sauna. This is the time when it's really important to rinse off (after stepping out of the sauna).
4a. Sit on the bench of the sauna without a towel, because you forgot to bring one, and get scolded by a middle-aged lady. Oops! Hastily exit the sauna and try to be good from now on.
5. These things are super hot. Submerge yourself in the cold pool and relax in there for a while! Hurrah! Notice you are getting a few odd looks--people don't usually do this. But it's not against the rules, so the odd lookers seem more amused than anything else. Psssh, foreigners.
6. Rinse off in the shower again on your way out. Have a cold drink.

I'm a pretty modest fat lady with all kinds of fun body image issues, but somehow public bathing is an exception in my mind. I'm so glad, because it feels soooo good. The first time I went to an onsen, I was visiting a Japanese uni roommate, so I went with two friends and the mother of a friend. This set a bar for me, and I never worried about getting naked in public baths again. It sounds like you'll be going alone, so rest your nerves: you don't know anyone there, and in fact, you will never see them again! Their thoughts about your naked body are totally irrelevant to you! Not only that, but they are in a context where they expect everyone to be naked. It's just not a big deal. And you can see them just as much as they can see you, so you're all on equal footing.

Actually, going with friends the first time helped me to keep my nerve, in a way--I didn't have the option to turn around and leave. (Or anyway, I would have been stuck in the onsen lobby for a couple of hours!) Just tell yourself you're going to do it... and then do it. You will be glad you did.

I've made etiquette mistakes before, but if you are conscientious about following the example of local bathers, you probably won't. There have been English instructions posted in nearly every Japanese bath I've been to--definitely all of those near tourist areas. My mistakes have been minor and I have survived the embarassment.

Oh yeah, and if you have a tattoo but want to go to an onsen, you can cover it with skin-coloured athletic tape. This is the advice of a Japanese friend, and it worked well for my partner. (We also tried asking the staff if her tattoo was OK, but that method did NOT work.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:35 AM on April 26, 2012

German and Dutch bathhouses will often be co-ed nude. Some examples I've been to include Sauna Deco in Amsterdam, the Friedrichsbad in Baden-Baden and the Muller baths in Munich.

Yes, its basically pay, get a locker, store all your clothes in there (the locker rooms are often co-ed as well), grab a towel and walk out to the bath area which will include steam saunas, wet saunas, cold pools, hot pools, swimming pools, whirlpools etc. You often start out by taking a shower to clean yourself. Then you just circulate to the things which appeal most to you. Its important to be polite, civil, and not glare at the other customers. Sometimes they'll also have massages you can book ahead of time.

Keep in mind that in Western Europe many Thermal Spas actually come from a medicinal tradition. These are slightly different beasts in that they will have a more structured program you follow. Often a series of prescribed baths and massages. In the Thalassotherapy in San Sebastian, Spain, for example, all the attendants actually have what look like Doctor and Nurse unforms as they move you from room to room. I found it all a bit disconcerting.

One interesting hybrid of the two I really loved was the Friedrichsbad I mentioned above. That is more of a structured program but the program is only a recommendation within a classic sauna/spa environment. If you're interested I have more details about that here.
posted by vacapinta at 10:57 AM on April 26, 2012

You might be interested in the book cathedrals of the flesh.
posted by vespabelle at 7:01 PM on April 26, 2012

Response by poster: Wow! I wish I could mark all of the responses as best responses! Thanks for all your input I'm super excited to get out there and do this! :D
posted by xicana63 at 10:03 AM on April 27, 2012

Response by poster: Also I found this article if anyone is interested!
posted by xicana63 at 10:19 AM on April 27, 2012

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