Rediscovering Sento- Japan’s public bathhouses

As a foreigner living in Tokyo, I soon noticed the blue fabric door hanging on the front of a building in my local shotengai (shopping street). I had no idea what this building contained and not being able to read kanji, I had no clue as to the cultural hub that lay within the tiled building. 

Over time I observed women, men and families of all ages walking in and out of the building carrying small caddies of shampoo and soap, and little wonder, in Tokyo alone there are literally hundreds of sento, with one in nearly every neighbourhood. Originally sento or a public bathhouse were created as people that did not have a bath in their home. The number of sentos have declined significantly since the mid-1960’s as the number of Japanese homes with private baths increased, hence there was no practical reason for people to visit the local bathhouse. However, modern Japanese life has called for a re-evaluation of the valuable, and unique sento culture, and is now finding a new relevance as an affordable (entry to sento in Tokyo is 470yen) local spa where people can relax, socialise and experience Japanese bath culture.​ ​

Like many other foreigners, my first introduction to Japanese bath culture was during a ski trip to the onsen town of Yuzawa. My initial awkwardness of undressing and bathing in a communal bath quickly disappeared, as my body was weary after a full-day skiing, soaked in the steaming hot spring water. It was pure bliss and I was instantly converted. Onsen means hot spring and refers to thermal or mineral water sources of the bath. There are over 27,000 natural hot spring sources throughout Japan- and the temperature, colour, texture and even smell of the water can vary significantly, each believed to offer specific health and skin benefits. 

While many of my friends spoke of onsen visits on their trips around Japan, there was little introduction to the local sento. A sento is a public bathhouse which often uses heated tap water, although technically many sento can also qualify as onsen as they draw their water from deep below ground.​ ​​ ​

Sento history can be dated back to the 6th century, when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from India. All Buddhist temples had bath facilities to practice purification rituals. However, it was centuries later when the Buddhist temples allowed the public to use their baths, that bathing became very popular among common people. At the end of the 12th century bathing facilities began to open as private businesses. It was during the Edo Era (1603-1868) that sento really grew in popularity, as the building of private baths in homes was prohibited as a measure to prevent fires in the city of Edo (present day Tokyo). During this time many people visited the Edo sento each day,​ ​

So why do Japanese people choose to visit sento today? Sento culture is becoming more of an interest or pastime, than it is for simply getting clean. Visiting the local sento brings a sense of community with its loyal local patrons, an opportunity to socialize and spend time with family and friends, and for visitors, a connection with the locals to learn more about the local area and history. In Japanese there is a saying “hadaka no tsukiai” which literally translates as naked relationship, however its meaning is better explained as an open association between people without being tied to their status or title. In the bath we are all the same, we can relax and be ourselves. Something that is becoming increasingly important in our over scheduled, modern lives. 

The large communal baths in the sento are quite different from the small bathtubs in homes at home. They help to create a refreshing atmosphere and give full relaxation in a large size bath. As they have for centuries, Sento continue to be a place where neighbors meet and different generations come together to socialize and relax. The appeal of visiting and soaking in the sento is made even more enjoyable by taking in the beautiful murals, mosaic and tile artworks that feature prominently in each sento. 

The environment, ambiance and sense of community is strong within sento culture today, and Stephanie Crohin , the author of the book- “Sentos: Small Museums” and a Sento Ambassador of Japan, has visited hundreds of sento around Japan, and now works full time to raise awareness of sento with a global audience. Recently at the New York Japan Foundation conference, Crohin’s presented her work entitled “I love yu, The charms of the Japanese bath houses”. Throughout this presentation Stephanie shared her detailed knowledge of sento and shared her unofficial categorisation for the three types of sento in Japan, along with an impressive collection of photography showcasing the incredible beauty and artistry that is hidden behind their often non-descript front doors.

Old-Fashioned Sento: nostalgic and retro these bath houses appear to be stuck in time. Many of them almost like sento- museums complete with original artifacts such as antique hair-dryers, old posters, lockers and bath fittings. It is easy to agree with Crohin when she “would like for those sento to be preserved forever as jewels of Japanese architecture”.

Modernized Sento: These sento were generally renovated in the 80s or 90s and thus tend to display themes reminiscent of those decades, such as European landscaping or art that would have been trendy then. There, you may find fancy or over-the-top designs no one would expect to find in a Japanese bath house, like murals of Swiss landscapes and replicas of Monet's famous works.​ ​

Designer Sento: Those sento that are contemporary and architect designed. Classy and elegant, representing a modern Japanese aesthetic.​ ​​ ​​ ​

With such unique Japanese cultural heritage in decline, it is inspiring to now see sento culture being revived and re-imagined for a new generation. There is no doubt that the authentic sento experience is one that is truly special and should be proudly shared to keep the history of the Japanese bath house alive.​ ​​ ​

Related links
The Japanese Art of Bathing
Research on Beauty in Japan Entry #3: Bath Time