Denki Buro: A shocking surprise at the public bath

Everybody that’s studied abroad in Japan always returns home with lots of amazing stories to tell their friends and family. Cassie Walker, a former student peer adviser and a 2016/17 JCMU alum, has her own stories that she’d like to share with you!

Public baths are a must-visit while in Japan, and are some of the best places to relax your stress away after a hard day’s work in the classroom. As Cassie recalls in one trip to a local sento though, one particular type of bath served as nightmare fuel for her! Below, read about her experiences conquering denki buro.

For most Americans, the idea of bathing (naked) along with strangers is questionable at best. And yet, this has become one of my favorite activities in Japan! Be it at an onsen (public bath that uses natural spring water) or a sento (public bath that uses regular water), Japanese bathhouses are the perfect place to relax and unwind.

What makes them even more exciting is the variety of baths available. From mineral baths to carbonated ones, trying them all is part of the fun! Shiga Prefecture itself boasts a large array of different specialty baths that I can’t wait to hop into the next time I’m in the area. However, some can be rather intimidating…

Sento are easy to spot thanks to the ゆ (yu) character, which represents hot water (photo by Takanori Ishikawa)

When one of my friends was about to return to America, we decided that a relaxing evening soaking up hot water was the best way to send her off. After a busy day of classes, we tried the onsen closest to campus, but they were closed for the evening. Luckily a large sento closer to Hikone Station was open until 1am, so we biked right over.

After putting our shoes away and paying, we made a beeline to the baths. The women’s side had numerous indoor bathtubs along with an impressive outdoor area as well. However, what caught my attention was a seemingly unsuspecting bath in the corner. The kanji above it, 電気風呂 (denki buro), translates directly to electricity bath. Now call me crazy, but last time I checked, it’s not a good idea to jump into water with electricity surging through it. Was it there just to punish those that dared to peak into the opposite genders’ baths? Or worse yet, did we accidentally wander into a yakuza hideout where their victims were plunged into these murderous creations?!?

Needless to say, I was terrified of this otherwise innocuous tub. But also…


After thinking about it for a bit, I remember vaguely hearing about these online. There, members of the internet assured readers that these baths were a unique and painless experience. Despite my fears, the internet insisted that no, the entire bath is not pulsing with dangerous levels of electricity. Rather, it gets its name from a small sitting area (or two) in the bath where weak electrical currents run between two panels on opposite sides of each other.

I told my friend that I would not leave the sento until I got into that bath. Still wondering whether I should prepare a will before stepping it, this task ended up being easier said than done. While I knew that the bath must be safe, I couldn’t bring myself to fully sit inside it.

Modern sento at Takayama
A normal, non-electric bath. Photo by sanmai

After wussing out a couple of times, I thought being further reassured by a local would help. We approached a woman our age and asked her what she knew about the denki buro. She instead told us that the currents can hurt a bit and that it’s mostly safe. After seeing our scared faces, she laughed and asked if we would be less afraid if she got in the bath first. Still determined to conquer this bath, I agreed right away.

After getting in, she helpfully explained that the current is weakest in the middle and urged us to start by putting our hands in first, to see how it felt. This was it: either this woman was a secret member of the mob coaxing me to my doom, or I’d just maybe make it out of this alive. Either way, there was no backing out now. My resolve fortified, I followed her instructions and plunged my hand right in. A pins-and-needles feeling began in my hand, and I immediately took that as the beginning of the end. However, that was it. No pain, no negative side effects, no death. Just the mild tingling sensation.

Laughing at how scared I was for nothing, I moved my hand closer to the electricity panels. The closer I got, the more intense the sensation became. I continued edging towards it until my arm felt mostly numb. But it didn’t hurt! My previous terror now completely to the wayside, I submerged the rest of my body in the water. The feeling was even less pronounced than with just my hand in the bath. It felt like the currents were bouncing off my legs, which tickled a bit!

With the denki furo conquered, we thanked our new friend and continued to enjoy the tamer aspects of the sento. We ended our night with a refreshing glass of milk (the coffee one is my favorite), a must do when at a public bath.

Vending Machine
An assortment of milk, including flavors like coffee and fruits.

There are bound to be things that initially make you uncomfortable about being in a new culture, like the denki buro for me. However, that just means you have to befriend a local and work through your fears together!

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