A traveler’s guide to public baths in Japan

photo by chidorian on Flickr

Public baths are a thing of the past in most developed countries, yet in powerful and rich Japan the tradition hasn’t died out yet. As strange as it may seem to a non-Japanese person, even in large metropolises like Tokyo there still are a few public baths, or sento left. In the past, when not all apartments were built with a bathroom, people went to sentos sometimes daily in order to get their baths. Sento means hot water for coin in Japanese, but these public baths were much more than simply a place where you had access to hot water, they were real Japanese institutions. From a traveler’s point of view, sentos are both a curiosity and a very practical facility where backpackers can clean up without checking into a hotel. Here’s a traveler’s guide to public baths in Japan, in case you’re curious about them, or need a good soak.

Why go to a sento

Although sento were very common in Japan at a time, since the second half of the 20th century, their numbers have been steadily increasing. Since most new housing facilities have bathrooms now, few people need to go to a sento anymore. However, public communal baths were more than a necessity in the past – they were a place to socialize. Since soaking in the bath after washing up was an essential part of the sento experience, people had the opportunity to chat with neighbors, acquaintances and strangers, cultivating emotional connections through the close physical proximity. Nowadays, people who live in older apartment complexes or those who feel some nostalgia for the past are the usual patrons of sentos.

What to bring

If you are going to use a sento, you are expected to have a some basic equipment with you: two towels, a washcloth, soap andor shampoo. These can also be bought at the front desk. Take whatever else you need for your usual bath, and you’re good to go! The set price for all sentos in Japan in 450 yen, but you might have to pay extra for facilities like the sauna.

Sento Etiquette

photo by daisukemaizumi on Flickr

A usual sento consists in one large room with a thick barrier in the middle, separating the area for women and men. Most traditional sentos are built according to a similar layout. There is an entrance area, which looks somewhat similar to temple entrances. It is followed by a locker area where people leave their shoes, and then proceed to the changing rooms.

Traditionally, the changing room has tatami floors, and it has lockers where people can leave their clothes, as well as scales to measure height and weight, if the guests are curious. At the front desk, where you pay for your bath, refreshments can also be bought – milk based drinks and ice cream, traditionally. When you enter the bathing area, you will be able to get a small bucket and a stool at the door – these are essential if you want to wash yourself. One wall of the room will be lined with faucets with hot and cold water, where you can sit down on the stool and use the bucket to pour water on yourself.

After scrubbing yourself vigorously, you are free to soak in the communal bath. Most sento have an etiquette guide posted at the entrance, frequently in several languages, so don’t forget to consult it if you are not sure how to proceed.

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