|It is said that communal baths have existed in Japan for at least 750 years. Sento, communal baths charging an admission fee, were centers of neighborhood social interaction and an important part of daily life. At their peak, there were more than 2,000 in metropolitan Tokyo.
“A sento is the best source of information if you want to get to know the local area,” says Stephanie Crohin, a native of France who works as a “sento journalist” in Japan.
To date, Stephanie has visited more than 800 sento nationwide. She first came to Japan as an exchange student, and began writing about sento and their attractions on social media and her blog. When her work gained recognition, and the Japanese Sento Culture Association appointed her as its first Sento Ambassador. She continues to promote sento culture through a variety of media, including television, magazines and the web, and acts as a bridge-builder between sento and foreign visitors.
Sento have been popular in Japan for centuries, but are an unusual culture in global terms. We asked Stephanie about their attractions, how to enjoy them, and the key points of sento etiquette.
The attractions of sento: a sense of community, art, and health and beauty benefits
— What are the greatest attractions of sento?
Stephanie: A sento is the ideal place to get to know local culture in Japan. If visiting famous tourist spots is not enough for you, if you want to relieve the fatigue of your journey, and even if it’s not your first trip to Japan, I recommend a visit to a sento.
A visit to a sento is an opportunity not just to experience daily life as local people live it, but also to appreciate the architecture and interior décor, and there are beauty and health benefits too.
— What is so special about the architecture and interior décor of a sento?
Stephanie: There are so many different sento – some are housed in buildings renovated by a designer, some in old buildings that give a great sense of history. One style of architecture to look out for is miya-zukuri (Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine architecture), which can be very beautiful.
Stephanie: Inside, you can enjoy a wide variety of art. The walls are often decorated with paintings or mosaics depicting Mt. Fuji or local landscapes, created by skilled craftsmen.
— What health and beauty benefits do sento offer?
Stephanie: Many sento draw their water from wells, so the quality of the water is excellent, and it’s good for your skin. Hot springs with black water known as kuro-yu (black hot springs), are found in many areas of Tokyo. Sento all over Japan pride themselves on the properties of their water. In Kyushu, almost all use water from hot springs. A hot spring bath can really help you get over jet lag and relieve the fatigue of your journey.
“I sometimes forget I’m a foreigner at sento.”
— So how did you first become a sento-goer?
Stephanie: The first time I visited a sento was when a friend who was also an exchange student invited me. We were soon hooked – we used to go every week and wash each other’s backs with body scrub.
— What was it about sento that you liked so much?
Stephanie: In those days I wasn’t very fluent in Japanese, but the first time I went, the regulars and the owner spoke kindly to me. Though we couldn’t speak each other’s language, they really made me feel welcome.
As I was leaving, the owner asked, “How do you say, ‘See you again’ in French?” I told him it was “À bientôt”, and after that he said it every time I visited. That made me so happy.
The sento is a place where there are no pretenses. When they are naked, everyone is equal, no matter what their background. Of course, people show respect to their elders. When I meet the regulars, and we tell each other “Long time no see! How have you been?”, I sometimes forget I’m a foreigner.
You can get local information that doesn’t appear in guidebooks at sento
— What are the important things to remember if you want to get the most out of your visit to a sento?
Stephanie: First, say hello. When you enter the changing room, say “Konnichiwa” (Good afternoon) or “Konbanwa” (Good evening). Even in the bath itself, you should say “Domo” (Hi). I recommend foreign visitors learn how to say “Konnichiwa”. But if that’s too difficult, it’s fine to say “Hello” or some other greeting in your own language.
A sento is a shared space, so it’s important to greet other users and show consideration. If you say hello, people will be friendly.
Stephanie: If you speak a little Japanese, sento are some of the best “information points” you can find, so you should definitely make use of that. When I’m travelling, I always visit the local sento first. The regulars and the owner will often have lived in the area for many years, so they know where the best restaurants are, and you can pick up lots of local information that you won’t find in guidebooks.
It’s fun to make sento your first port of call when you are travelling. They can provide the opportunity to explore areas off the beaten track, the kind of places you might overlook as you travel between major tourist destinations. And you can use the information you get at the sento to decide your next destination.
Are tattoos acceptable at sento?
— What etiquette should you observe when you visit a sento?
Stephanie: Many sento have a poster explaining correct etiquette, but it’s a good idea to learn the basics before you go.
Take your shoes off
Take your shoes off in the entrance hall and place them in a locker.
If you say hello, people will be friendly and offer help if you have a problem.
Take a small towel into the bathroom
When you leave the bathroom, dry yourself with the towel before you enter the changing room.
Don’t get straight into the bath
Wash with hot water and soap, and rinse thoroughly, before getting into the bath.
Don’t put your towel in the water
Even if it’s a clean towel, you shouldn’t put it in the water.
Don’t get your hair in the water
If you have long hair, tie it up with an elastic band or clips so that it doesn’t get in water.
— Can you use a sento even if you have tattoos?
Stephanie: That’s a question I get asked on social media almost every week, but there’s no need to worry! Many onsen ryokan (hot spring inns) and large sento, known as “super-sento”, ban people with tattoos, but 99% of small sento allow them in. Sento that ban tattoos usually display a notice, but check with the staff if you are not sure.
— How do your foreign friends react when you take them to a sento?
Stephanie: At first, many are worried about being naked in front of strangers. I understand how they feel, because I was like that the first time. But once they are in, they get used to it within five minutes. So far, the repeat rate among my friends is 100%. The other sento-goers don’t look at them, so they stop minding.
Another person told me they had been to a sento without knowing anything about them, and were shocked that the water was so hot. It turned out that the sento they visited was famous for having particularly hot water.
What I’d like to emphasize is that if you visit a sento and don’t like it, you should try another one! On your first visit, if you’re not familiar with how a sento works, you could make a faux pas. But don’t give up just like that. There is sure to be a sento that’s right for you. Start with a beginner-friendly place, and then gradually move on to sento with more character.
Stephanie’s recommendations for first-time sento visitors
Chidori Onsen (Osaka)
A retro sento established in 1952. Sento in the Kansai region typically have a bath in the center of the room, surrounded by a ledge, like a step. People often sit on the ledge to rest, so it’s easy to get talking. It’s very clean, with a wide range of services on offer at the front desk, and there are various baths with water at different temperatures. There is also a brochure in English.
Address: 2-12-20 Baika, Konohana-ku, Osaka
A lovely sento with a wide range of bath types, including outdoor, cold-water, and medicated jet baths. The owner keeps budgerigars, which you can watch as you bathe. The budgerigar that lives by the front desk is very talkative and amusing. You should also visit the nearby Horinji Temple, famous for its many daruma (red-painted dolls representing Dharma that are considered to bring good luck).
Address: 356 Saito-cho, Onmae Higashiiru, Shimodachiuri-dori, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto
Nishikoen Yokujo (Fukuoka)
A small sento with a homey atmosphere, run by the kindly Ms. Rumi. The walls are decorated with murals by Morio Nakajima, one of Japan’s leading sento artists. The nearby Nishi Koen park is famous for its cherry blossom.
Address: 6-21 Nishikoen, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka, Fukuoka Prefecture
Bara no Yu (Nagano)
This sento is 3-4 minutes’ walk from the famous Matsumoto Castle. The wall mosaics are copies of prints from the Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai (one of Japan’s greatest artists, born in 1760). At night, the neon sign is attractive too.
Address: 2-2-18 Arigasaki, Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture