During our first trip to Japan, one of our hosts had encouraged us to use the nearby sentō (bathhouse) as part of our experience, which absolutely terrified me. Despite my reservations, it became one of my favorite parts of Japanese culture.
Japanese bathhouses have been a fixture in the country for centuries and can be traced back to 710 A.D. Not to be confused with onsen, public bathhouses, or sentō, offer bathing and soaking facilities for a small entrance fee, and visitors are separated into male and female areas where they get clean and relax too. Yes, you’re expected to be naked at a sentō bathhouse, in fact, bathing suits are banned at most of them. But, if you can get over your reservations it can be a transformative experience. Where did sentō begin? And why is it so important to Japanese culture?
Let’s take a look at why Japan has bathhouses in the first place, whether they have a place in modern-day culture, and what to expect if you visit one.
What are Japanese bathhouses?
Before we get into their history, and the proper code of conduct if you visit one, let’s have a look Their official Japanese name is sentō, and they are essentially public buildings that provide facilities for washing and bathing. There’s a small entrance fee to pay at the door, and then bathing areas are divided into male and female rooms and changing areas. Customers remove every item of clothing, then proceed to wash from head to toe, before making use of the hot baths to relax. It’s an activity that’s been practiced for many years in Japan, and it’s often been the source of comfort and relaxation during difficult times.
How long have sentō bathhouses been around?
Japanese bathing culture can be traced back to the earliest instances of Buddhism in India and surrounding countries. It went from India to China, and arrived in Japan sometime in the Nara Period (710-784AD), where the practice of Shinto was already established. Both Shinto and Buddhism highlight the importance of cleanliness in worship, and therefore bathing has been a common practice among priests in Japan for centuries. Baths within the temple were called yūya, which literally means hot water shop.
Public or commercial bathing was first mentioned around 1266, but those early interpretations were quite unlike what we recognize as sentō today. Not only were they mixed gender, but people were given rations of hot water, and it was often so dark in the bathing room that people would cough or clear their throats regularly to indicate where they were. I don’t know what you think, but to me, that sounds like a dream if you’re self-conscious, and a nightmare if you don’t want to get randomly stepped on by a naked stranger – choices, choices.
By the Edo period (1603-1868) bathhouses more closely resembled the ones you’ll find in Japan today, although many were still mixed-sex. Laws around mixed-sex bathing were something of a rollercoaster due to the changing ideals of public morality – some public bathing houses segregated men and women into different time slots, but many just partitioned the rooms in the building with small boards (which apparently led to acts of voyeurism). Despite people’s apparent disgust with inappropriate bath time behavior, laws pertaining to mixed-sex bathing were at times relaxed, partially because of the sheer popularity, and partly because of yuna.
What were hot water women?
Yuna, or hot water women, were female bathing attendants that helped customers get clean by scrubbing their backs. If you’ve already got your eyebrows raised then keep them there because, in some places, this did lead to after-hour prostitution. The governments at the time tried various measures to prevent this, including a ban on having more than 3 female attendants, and then a ban on female attendants altogether, instead of encouraging bathhouses to hire sansuke, or male attendants. In modern times, you’re expected to wash yourself, regardless of your gender.
The fluctuation in these rules did nothing to curb the popularity of sentō, and by the Meiji period (1867-1912) it was so popular that most bathhouses underwent positive transformations to accommodate the needs of their growing clientele. Bathing rooms became larger and brighter, large hot baths were added, and windows were also installed (higher than eye level, of course) which meant the buildings received natural light. By this point, segregated bathing was a requirement by law, so sentō establishments were sure to separate the male and female areas with walls and separate changing areas.
Has sentō changed over the years?
Other than opting for ceramic tiles in favor of the traditional wooden boards (and a few other minor changes), sentō remains strikingly unchanged, with most features in modern-day sentō deriving from practices that began centuries ago. That’s actually one of the things that makes it such a transformative experience (but we’ll get to that later). During WW2, many buildings were destroyed, at least in most of the major cities – many sentō buildings and private homes needed to be rebuilt.
They were rebuilt quickly. Because of the lack of resources, most people did not have access to private baths. New buildings were even built without showers or baths, making sentō an absolute necessity for many. In 1965 another positive change was introduced when most baths added showerheads to the faucets.
Before this, people would use small bowls that they could fill with water at the taps, and then use that water to scrub themselves from head to toe. Despite the fact that from the 1970s, baths in private homes became much more common, the older generation still continued to use sentō, enjoying the relaxing and quietly social nature of the experience.
The younger generation was not as convinced, and as major cities in Japan modernized, bathhouses saw a steady decline in patrons. In a world where many are confident to share their bodies with the world through social media, Japan’s youth remains decidedly shy on the whole, and find the idea of being naked in front of others unpleasant, especially when they have a perfectly good shower or bath at home. And yet, bathhouses still operate across the country, and while attendance may not be what it once was, a significant number of people still choose the sentō experience for several reasons.
The benefits and etiquette of Sento
We’ve covered the benefits of onsen before, and sentō is said to be a way to enjoy an onsen-esque experience within the city. Japanese people believe that sentō is beneficial for your physical and mental health for many reasons, although many are speculation, so believe at your own peril or delight. People’s reasons for visiting bathhouses have gone from it being a necessity to luxury. Many traditional or run-down sentō bathhouses have modernized and added features that you might expect at a luxury spa (they’re referred to as super sentō when they add these features).
The hot baths provide a wonderful release from the rush of modern-day life in a town or city. The water in those baths is heated as it would be in a natural onsen, and many of even the most basic bathhouses provide a few different baths to choose from, with some offering hotter water or even a light electric current running through them (no I’m not joking, no you won’t die). Any regular user of these types of baths will tell you that the hot water increases blood flow, can improve your metabolism, and some claim your immune system too.
While I can’t scientifically prove any of those are true, I can tell you that despite my intense anxiety and self-consciousness, sentō was one of the most relaxing experiences of my life. We entered with trepidation, but realized within minutes of undressing that people really don’t seem to care about your nudity – they’re so used to the experience that they get on with bathing, and really don’t pay you much attention.
Plus, the Japanese are known for their intense and superior manners in public, so if somebody does want to take a peek at your western bod, chances are you’ll have no idea. Not only was the experience of bathing and soaking incredibly relaxing, but it was also the best night’s sleep I’d had during the whole trip.
So now I’ve (hopefully) talked you into baring and bathing it all, what are the best tips for enjoying sentō in Japan?
If you have a tattoo, check you’re allowed in!
Unfortunately, bathhouses don’t take too kindly to tattoos, since they indicate that somebody is part of organized crime in Japan, and bathhouses were traditionally used as meeting places for those in the yakuza. Even though the world over tattoos have become a little bit more mainstream, Japanese people are still very conservative when it comes to body art, so most sentō bathhouses and onsen ban anyone with tattoos from entering. If you have a small one, you should be able to cover it up with a band-aid, and if it’s too big to cover up, you can search for tattoo-friendly sentō in the area that you’re visiting. There aren’t many, but you still should be able to find at least one during your stay.
Try to follow the code of conduct of sentō
This can be hard if you’re new to the country and it’s your first time, but Japanese people take their rules and rituals very seriously, so if you ignore them or act in a way that shows you don’t care about them, then you’ll likely offend everyone in sight. Firstly, once you’ve paid, remove your shoes, and enter the gender-appropriate changing area.
It’s worth noting here that if you don’t identify with the traditional notion of male or female for any reason, you could experience some difficulties using sentō. There’s a really great article shared by one of our other writers here but if you’re unsure and would like to avoid any confusion or confrontation, you could consider private onsen as an alternative to public bathing.
Next, you need to undress, and that means complete nudity. If you try to bathe with your swimming costume on then you’ll likely be asked to leave. Like I said before though, nobody cares that you’re naked… because everyone is naked! Once you’ve placed your clothes in the baskets or lockers provided, head to the rows of showers, and scrub yourself from head to toe. DO NOT head into the baths first, as they’re not there to make you clean, they’re there to relax you once you’re clean. Many choose to wash, soak, and then repeat as many times as it takes to feel completely zen. My advice? Just try to soak up the experience! (Sorry).
Some other quick tips for sentō bathing
- Be quiet! Sentō is a peaceful place, and Japanese people tend to be quiet in public places anyway, so try and speak quietly if you’re with somebody you know, and be respectful if you need to speak to somebody you don’t know.
- Turn the shower faucet off while you’re scrubbing, and only turn it on when you’re ready to rinse.
- Keep your towel out of the tub! Many choose to put it at the side of the tub (and my husband said that the men in his side of the sentō we tried rested the towels on their heads while they soaked).
- Bring your own shampoo and other shower essentials. You can usually purchase some things at the counter but it’s best to bring your own.
- Dry yourself off before stepping back into the changing room, and try to be as tidy and clean as you possible can during your time there.
- Lather, rinse, repeat…. too cheesy? OK, just enjoy it then.