In the last article, I told you about onsen, or hot springs, and explained how bathing in natural spring waters is a ritual in Japan, especially in the wintertime. Today I’m going to tell you about something even better, and something very few travelers know about the sento. A sento is a public bath. Of course, onsen are also a form of public bath. The difference between a sento and an onsen is that onsen use natural spring water (which is reflected in their 1,000 yen and up price) while sento use just hot tap water. In the old days, sento served the entire neighborhood as older Japanese houses were not equipped with baths or showers. These days, however, since all new Japanese houses have baths, sento are on the decline. In the not too distant future, sento will be extinct and their flashier counterparts, the onsen, will be the only public baths available. Sentos give you a rare glimpse into Japanese culture that you won’t find at an onsen which is full of tourists. Don’t miss your chance to get naked with the locals at a neighborhood sento!
Sentos are still numerous in old neighborhoods, so if you find yourself in an old shopping street or a street lined with older houses, you can be sure there will be one within walking distance. Sentos are time machines. They’ll take you back to before WWII when bathing was also a social time. Watch old men scrub each others backs; watch old Japanese ladies scrub their faces till they practically fall off; watch how people say goodnight to everyone when they leave the bathhouse. In addition, you’ll have fun in the locker room: weigh yourself on one of those ancient metal scales with the needle that spins around like a clock; dry your hair tornado style under one of those old hair salon dryers; sit in one of those old decrepit massage chairs that, for a price, will rake a set of wheels up and down your back. Ah, the good old days!
Sento cost 350 yen, a price set by the government, and you have to bring your own shampoo, body soap and towel. These toiletries are always available for purchase at very reasonable prices should you not come prepared. Most sento open at 3pm and close between 10pm and 12pm.
You may be denied entry if you have a tattoo. This is because tattoos have long had yakuza (Japanese mafia) connections and this was a means of keeping them out. Of course, most sento wonâ€™t say that. Theyâ€™ll just say that tattoos are unhygienic and therefore not allowed. (see photo)
Where to find them
Sentos are hard to find as even if you ask someone, they probably don’t know where they are since they don’t use them. Ask OLD people who look like they live in the area: “Kono chikaku ni wa, sento arimasuka?”
You can buy a map of any city that has all public facilities on it (laundromats, parks, etc) including sento.
Look for the sento mark (refer to previous article on onsen the mark is the same) or the sign fora hot water mark which is the hiragana “yu”.
Amy Chavez is author of Guidebook to Japan: What the other guidebooks won’t tell you” She is a columnist for The Japan Times, co-hosts the Planet Japan podcast. Visit her website at www.amychavez.com