While Onsen 温泉 (literally hot source) exist for the pleasure of relaxation and the health benefits of bathing in nutrient-rich water, Sento 銭湯 (public bath) are local establishments mostly used for daily hygiene. Although Sento are less in the spotlight, they still are truly relaxing after a hard day of labor.
Anyway, you can notice bath Culture is deeply rooted in Japanese Society. And as an addict of Japanese Culture, you have always wondered what does it feel to live as a local. Trying a Sento could be one of those authentic experiences.
I will talk about Sento here, but keep in mind most of the rules are also applicable in Japanese Onsen.
I hope this little guide will allow you to overcome your shyness, and allow you to discover those amazing places without fearing to make a misstep.
Location and Business Hours
Before picking out the perfect Sento for you, you have to be aware of couple things. If you are in Tokyo, I would highly recommend to have a look at the Sento available thanks to that site. The location and business hours for each of them are indicated. I would also advise you to check the reviews up to have a better opinion on your choice.
The price concerning Sento is roughly similar from a place to an other: around 460 yen for an adult entrance.
Nevertheless, depending on the establishment, cards of 10 entrances could be available. Which put obviously individual entrances at a cheaper price (4000 yen for 10 adult entrances for example).
Then, you would probably like to know if the Sento allows tattoos or not. In fact, because of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) who have for ritual to tattoo their body, numerous are the public baths refusing tattoos. However, if your artwork is quite small, it is also possible to cover it with a strip or anything convincing enough.
In addition, an important thing to know would be if you need to bring your own towels or other amenities. Some Sento provide you indeed everything you need including soap, shampoo, conditioner and towels, but some others only provide, well, hot water. Your choice could also depends on the “extras” provided. In fact some Sento propose open air baths, hammams, saunas etc.
Finally, a neglected part: the temperature of the water. You might be concerned about it since some Sento could be too hot for you. Therefore, you would not be able to enjoy your first experience as much as you should. I would then recommend you at first to avoid a reputed one for its “very” hot water. Because, if it is your very first try, I guarantee you won’t be able to stay in there more than 5 minutes.
I will show you here all the different parts which constitute a Sento and explain them for you to know what to do. From the main entrance to progressively lead you to the so desired hot baths.
Just after entering the establishment, you could notice plenty shoes lockers like in the picture above. Until then it is pretty easy, you just have to remove your shoes to put them in one of those boxes in exchange for your “key” (which generally consists of a piece of wood with a number engraved on it). You can now join the common room.
The common room is the place where you could find the entrance of both woman and man baths, the cashier, some benches, books, and drinks you can purchase for couple of yen. Because Sento are non mixed, this is the place where you could wait your partner at the end of a relaxing session. But first, let’s buy an entry in our establishment!
This person is in charge of giving you your entrance ticket and will also check if you answer to the rules of the establishment by asking a few questions (regarding tattoos etc.). If the Sento provides towels, this is where you will normally receive them. You also have to give the money to that person if you want to buy a drink available in the common room. By his particular position , the cashier has (most of the time) a panoramic view of the common room and of what is happening in the changing rooms (woman and man).
First of all, before entering your changing room, please be sure to enter the right door! As I mentioned earlier, Sento are non mixed establishments! If you are a man, follow the blue pennant “男” like in the picture above. If you are a woman, follow the red one.
Once in there, you will again face lockers. This time it is for your clothes. I hope you were already mentally prepared but in fact, you have to be entirely naked in the bath. Do not worry, even if it seems a little weird at first, you will soon forget it as Japanese people truly do not care about it. No judgment, you are here to enjoy. Once naked put all your stuff in one of the lockers and keep the key bracelet on your wist (or ankle). Of course, do not forget to bring your towel and some soap (if not provided by the establishment) with you.
You are ready to enter the last stage: the bathroom.
Finally, the main area. But not so fast, before diving in the hot water, it is essential to properly wash your body. Before reaching the bath tubs, you could find taps in front of mirrors. Here is the place to wash. Borrow one of the stools available, sit, then madly scratch each centimeter of your skin to remove any possibly residual dirt. Eventually, you could notice some Japanese take the opportunity to shave their beard here too. Once totally clean, you are allowed to go to one of the baths your Sento has to offer. You can now relax and enjoy the present moment.
However, please keep some important “rules” in mind.
Be Careful With Your Towel
You are probably tempted to do as in your favorite manga and put your towel on your head and there is no problem with that. Nevertheless, be careful not to let it fall in the bath. By hygiene problem, it is frowned upon to put his towel in the bath water.
Head Above the Water
For same reasons, do not put your head in the bath water. It is not a place to wash or to try new experimentation, but to relax. Be respectful of your surrounding.
Last and pretty obvious one, be calm, respect the people around you, do not splash everywhere when entering the bath and so on.
Voilà! If you follow those guidelines, you should not experience any problem for your first Sento, and would even possibly see yourself interacting with curious locals wondering your presence here, in a warmful ambiance.
Website I linked before which I would highly recommend for more general information about Sento: here.