A Guide on Visiting Sento for Beginners

There are many experiences that tourists can get when visiting Japan. Depending on the city, prefecture, and season to name a few factors, experiencing Japan will be different for every individual. One of the many experiences that one should try should one ever find him or herself in Japan is going to Sento. One thing to take note of though is that the place is for the bold. That is to say, people going to sento should not be too shy or conscious as a sento is a Japanese communal bath house.

In A Picture: Features of this Type of Japanese Communal Bath House 

By Douglas Perkins (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Several houses in Japan did not incorporate bathtubs in their comfort rooms back in the day. Hence, the idea of a neighborhood public bath was enticing to the Japanese people who wished to submerge their bodies in hot water and relax. Literally translating to “coin hot water,” sento is a place wherein the Japanese people can wash their bodies, soak in a tub of hot water, and socialize with neighbors. An entrance fee is required in order to get into a sento. Back in the day, a large bathroom is separated by a tall barrier into two rooms based on gender.

While sento was quite popular during the olden times of no private bathtubs, its popularity is slowly diminishing due to a number of homes in Japan having their own bathtubs to soak in. Furthermore, a lot of Japanese people prefer private ones as it provides privacy. However, many still go to sento to relax and socialize. This may be attributed to their belief that social importance is upheld in public baths, with physical proximity bringing in emotional intimacy among people. On the other hand, some people just go because they do not have a private bathtub of their own at home.

Almost all sento have common features. Of course, the first common feature would be the entrance area. The layouts of the entrance area are similar for most traditional sento. The exterior face of the entrance area resembles that of a temple, accentuated by a Japanese curtain known as noren across the entrance. The curtain is usually blue of color with a kanji character 湯, which literally translates to “hot water,” or the hiragana character ゆ with the same meaning written at the center.

All sento also has a changing area as well as a bathing area. These two areas are typically separated by a sliding door in order to be able to keep the heat only in the bath. However, this is not the case only in the Okinawa region as the weather there is already hot. Due to the constant warm weather, sento in Okinawa typically does not have a separation between the changing area and the bathing area.

Just at the back of the bathing area lies the boiler room, also known as kamaba in Japanese. This is the place where the water is heated. There are many ways to heat the water up such as by using oil, electricity, or another kind of fuel like wood chippings. The boilers consist of tall chimneys, which are usually used for people to spot the sento from a certain distance.

With all the heat that one can get from sento, most modern sento these days also now have sauna as well as a bathtub of cold water with a temperature of about 17 degrees Celsius. This is to let the body cool down after all the heat has been released. The sauna facility is typically not for free; visitors would have to pay an extra amount to use the sauna. Various sento can be contacted by their phone numbers.

The Step-by-step Guide and Etiquette on How to Visit A Sento

By udono from Koto, Tokyo (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Many Japanese visit Sento at the end of a long day. Having worked for so long, bodies and muscles tend to become stiff and rigid. A hot sento bath is a means of relieving muscle pain and also as a way of relaxation. A lot of Japanese people enjoy a hot sento bath because aside from the relief that the hot bath brings to the body, the locals also enjoy socializing while resting. However, it is important to know the proper etiquette when visiting sento. It is, after all, a communal bath house; hence, respect and courtesy are of utmost importance.

The first step in visiting a sento is to pack a kit. People visiting a sento are going to get naked and wash. Hence, it is important to bring a small towel to cover one’s private parts. Furthermore, most sento these days do not offer free shampoo and body soap. Thus, for people who wish to wash up after, bringing one’s own set of toiletries is advised. Scrubbing with a loofah, as well as brushing one’s teeth, is acceptable in sento. Some stares can be expected for people who have tattoos in their bodies as several Japanese people relate this to the yakuza.

If one is visiting sento in Tokyo, there is actually a range of bathhouses with some being small suburban sento and other being a “super sento.” Upon entering any kind of sento, be sure to leave one’s shoes in a shoe locker. Entrance fee generally costs about 450 yen for a common sento though there are expensive ones in the area for a more luxurious bath. Not all receptionists in sento can speak English; hence it would be best to bring a Japanese-speaking buddy.

The baths are separated between male and female. The character 男 stands for male while the character 女 stands for female. Upon entering, there is a change room with lockers for keeping one’s belongings. Persons are to undress in the changing room in preparation for the bath. The only things that one would be wearing from the changing room is the small towel and a locker bracelet that serves as the locker key. Bring one’s toiletries to the tranquil baths.

By sanmai (Flickr: Modern sento at Takayama) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Huge and tiled, the space for baths consist of rectangles of deep water as well as steam wafting through the air, indicating the heat of the water. While talking is not necessarily prohibited, it would be best to keep the volume at a minimum so as not to disturb others who are resting. Open shower cubicles line the walls for people who wish to take a shower. A stool is present for people to sit in while facing the wall.

It is important to note that the baths are not for people to wash themselves in. With a pool of water being shared by a lot of people, it is vital that one step into the hot water with a clean body. Also make sure to pee in the right place, which is the toilet in the area. Always remember that this bath is shared with other people; hence, it is important to respect their body and cleanliness as much as one respects his or her own.

One can choose the pool of water that one can dip in. Make sure to test the temperature first before entering as some pools tend to have scalding hot water. Some pools have a lighting bolt symbol above it, which means that the pool contains mild electricity. This is because there is a theory that electricity lets the muscles contract, which lets the body relax when one finally gets out of the pool. Another important thing to take note of is to enter the bath naked, which means there should be no towel or underwear going into the pool.

The heat from the water lets the body relax and the head drowsy. If one would like to snap out of it, one can get into a cold bath after a hot one. A number of sento also offers a mineral bath that contains rich, black water. Stepping in and out of a number of baths and washing one’s self in between is common. In fact, this is considered a ritual of sento that dates back to centuries ago.

The Japanese style of finishing up in sento is to not wash off the minerals that the body attained from the last dip. Instead, go straight to changing into one’s pajamas, purchase a milk from a vending machine nearby, and go to bed.

Knowing Other Proper Etiquette Points When Visiting A Sento

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=371858

As was mentioned, people are required to bring their own towel when going to sento. Of course, other toiletries may also be brought it for washing. If one forgets to bring soap and other items, attendants in sento usually sell some at around 100 yen to 200 yen. Most people bring two towels when visiting sento - one for drying and one for washing. The important thing is to ensure that the body is clean prior to entering the pool of water so as not to contaminate the water, wherein other people are also dipping in.

Removing shoes and placing them in a shoe locker is also a must. This show of respect is similar to the custom of removing one’s shoes when going inside a private home. Shoe lockers in sento can usually be used free of charge. When entering the rooms, aside from the kanji characters on the doors, the men’s door usually is blue in color while the women’s door is pink in color.

While the Japanese style is to let the minerals stay on the skin of their bodies, most people generally wash off after dipping. This is because not all sento provide waters rich in minerals, unlike those in onsen. Hence, to be completely clean upon going home, visitors tend to rinse off for the last time.

Most sento in the area of Tokyo typically display posters on their walls to let visitors know the proper bathing etiquette. This includes showering and cleaning prior to taking a dip into the pool of hot water. Not doing so is heavily frowned upon by the public, who would be sharing the water with one. Horseplay in the area is also not allowed, especially since the place is supposedly for relaxation. Lastly, soaps shall not be introduced into the bath water.

Unfortunately, there are some public baths that do not allow people with tattoos to enter. However, there are those that let people in if the tattoos are not that obvious and would not alarm the public of the tattoos’ relation to the yakuza. This is only applicable for privately-owned sento. Public bathhouses that are publicly owned have a duty to allow all tax-paying citizens into their premise.

Getting the Sento Experience in Tokyo

There are various sento in the area of Tokyo. One notable sento is the Oedo Onsen Monogatari. It is a hot-spring theme park located near the Telecom Center Station situated in Yurikamome. The place offers a lot of facilities for guests to enjoy, along with free use of towels as well as a yukata. More on the higher end of the spectrum, entrance fee costs 2,480 yen for adults during daytime, 1,980 yen for adults during night time, 1,580 yen for adults in early morning, 1,000 yen for children four years old and above, and free of charge of children below four years old.

Recognized as a “super sento,” a must-visit when in Tokyo is Spa LaQua. Located within Tokyo Dome City, this hot-spring complex has numerous high-end facilities that guests would surely enjoy during their visit. The complex utilizes hot spring water that is rich in sodium chloride, which seeps from 1,700 meters below ground. It is said that this mineral-rich water aids in healing colds, muscle stiffness, and neuralgia. Their facilities include indoor baths, open-air baths, and low-temperature sauna. Steam in the sauna is filtered through stones like loess, germanium, tourmaline, and germanium.

With the use of far infrared rays and negative ions, acceleration of blood circulation, waste removal, and metabolism is achieved when dipping into their waters. There are also various services provided by this business such as massages, similar to what is provided in spas in hotels. Admission to this super sento costs 2,634 yen for adults and 1,944 yen for children. Though it may be a bit expensive in comparison to the common sento in the Tokyo area, the experience is truly unlike any other.