Japan is known for its numerous—and excellent—hot springs, but not everyone has the time or money to make it to some of the country's most scenic outdoor tubs. However, you don't have to venture far to enjoy a soak in naturally heated waters. Just indulge in one of Tokyo's sento.
What is a Sento?
Sento are Japan's public bathhouses, designed to cater to those who didn't have bathtubs in their own homes, a luxury that wasn't commonplace until some time after the end of World War II. Sento were first seen in Buddhist temples, as places where monks could bathe communally. The baths were later opened to the public, and by the end of the 12th century, sento had grown beyond the confines of the temple grounds and were often run as private businesses.
Sento were often viewed by individual neighborhoods and towns not just as places to come and clean oneself, but as centers of social interaction. Members of all generations could come together to chat, bathe and strengthen community ties.
While most Japanese now bathe in their own homes, the sento is seeking to reinvent itself. Some sento are drawing crowds for their once-again popular art deco interiors, while others incorporate high-end spa features.
How to Visit a Sento
Many sento encourage international visitors to enjoy the waters and provide multilingual explanations to improve the experience. However, visitors with a basic understanding of Japanese bathing etiquette before they go will find their outing to be even more enjoyable.
When heading to a public bath house, remember the following basic steps:
1. Remove your shoes at the door
Like most Japanese homes, shoes are never worn in the bath house. There will always be a rack, lockers or a place by the door to leave your footwear.
2. Pay your fee and purchase any products
A main desk near the entrance collects the admission fee, and also usually stocks bath products, towels and occasionally beauty items. Some bath houses have rentable towels, while others require you to purchase towels outright. You are also more than welcome to bring your own towels. Generally, it is best to have two towels—a small one for washing and a large one for drying
3. Enter the appropriate side
Sento are split by gender, with men (男) and women (女) occupying opposite sides of the bath house. The individual entrances are marked with colored curtains—men are often represented by blue, while a red curtain is used most frequently for women. When in doubt, ask the staff at the front.
4. Undress and store your belongings
Once you enter the appropriate bath, you'll find yourself in a large changing area. Some sento provide large lockers (occasionally requiring 100 coins that will be reimbursed after use) while others merely offer wicker or plastic baskets in which to place your clothes and other belongings. Undress and remove ALL of your clothing (yes, everything) before heading to the bath area. Also leave your large bath towel (if you have one) with your clothes, but take your small "modesty" towel with you.
Please note that some sento do not allow tattooed individuals to enter their facilities since tattoos are historically associated with the yakuza (organized crime). Be sure to confirm ahead of time if a sento is tattoo-friendly. If not, they will likely ask you to cover your tattoo before entering the bathing area.
5. Rinse off BEFORE entering the bath
Unlike many Western cultures, the bath itself is not used for washing. Rather, bathers are required to rinse themselves off at a shower area before entering the main tubs themselves. This area typically includes multiple stations equipped with faucets and showerheads. Grab a small stool and bucket, and wash yourself at one of the stations. Shampoo and body soap are often provided for visitors' use and bathers are expected to rinse any soap suds thoroughly from their body before making their way into the tubs for a soak.
Not sure what to do with that tiny modesty towel? Don't let it drop into the bath but do feel free to either place it on the tub's rim (if there's room or it's not too wet) or fold it up and place it on top of your head. If you have long hair, tie it up or use the small towel to keep it out of the communal baths.
Remember, to not speak too loudly. The sento is a place for relaxation.
6. Towel off BEFORE re-entering the changing room
Once you've enjoyed a nice long soak, take that hopefully still-dry modesty towel and give your body a quick wipe before heading back to your individual changing area. No one wants to pick their way across a slippery changing room floor.
7. Cool down with a refreshing drink
Hot baths can be dehydrating so it's always a good idea to drink some water after your soak. Water is often available in the changing room or in a vending machine in the lobby. Nearly all sento also offer milk, a popular post-bath beverage that many Japanese swear by after a dip in a hot spring.
Leave the sento feeling refreshed and culturally enlightened!