Article by Victoria Garafola.
Bathhouses, commonly referred to as “sento” in Japanese, have been an integral part of the Japanese social system since the Edo period. These buildings, found in most Japanese towns and cities, are slowly disappearing. As home baths become more popular, fewer people are frequenting bathhouses. However, these bathing temples provide a glimpse at the many intricacies of Japanese culture. Tourists traveling to Japan are encouraged to leave their inhibitions in the shoe locker and fully embrace this unique experience.
“Sento” literally translates to penny bath in English. These public bathhouses have been around since before the Edo period (1603-1868). The first public bathhouse opened in 1591 in the city of Edo, modern day Tokyo. Bathhouses have a rich history which has contributed to the cultural development of Japan. The first bathhouses were steam baths. These were similar to contemporary saunas except the lower half of the body was submerged in water. These first bathhouses were mixed gender and people from all sociological classes would come together to bathe and socialize. In the early 17th century, full body baths were introduced. These more closely resembled bathtubs seen today. The bathtubs that emerged during this period were called “Goemon-buro.” They have iron bottoms and are heated by fire. Interestingly, these bathtubs were named after a thief named Goemon Ishikawa who was sentenced to death by being boiled alive in a bathtub like cauldron in Kyoto. In order to protect their feet from the fire, it was necessary for bathers to wear wooden sandals when stepping into this bath. For a short period of time after the invention of the “Goemon-buro” was invented, prostitutes started working in bathhouses. Originally, these women were simply employees of the bathhouse, hired to scrub the customers and attend to their needs. These workers were called “yuna” in Japanese, this literally translates as hot water women. Eventually, they began to offer sexual services after hours. They became so popular, many bathhouses introduced a gentleman’s club type of area on the second floor. However, their rein was short-lived as the Edo period government banished them from bathhouses and forced them to work in their own districts. The bathhouses as we know them today had their beginnings in the Meji period (1868-1912). During this time, genders were separated and cosmetic changes were made to the bathhouses. Walls were built in the middle of the bathhouse to maintain moral decency. These walls sometimes had holes which were meant for passing soap but also enabled some voyeurism. The bathhouses of the Meji period resemble the bathhouses seen in Japan today.
Standing naked in front of a room full of strangers may seem unsettling at first, but this unique experience is one of the best ways to experience authentic Japanese culture. Before you find yourself stammering broken travel book phrases while clutching your towel, read up on some common etiquette. Before entering the sento, leave your shoes in the lockers provided at the entrance. Take the wooden card and pay the entrance fee (usually less than ¥500) to the worker at the front desk. Modern bathhouses are separated by gender. Avoid embarrassment by learning the kanji for man （男）and woman (女). These symbols will usually be painted on fabric hanging before the locker room doors. Set your western inhibitions down in the foyer and be ready to bare all! You can leave your clothes in a locker. Many bathhouses provide shampoo and soap, but some do not. It’s recommended to bring everything you need to get squeaky clean. Don’t forget a small towel to wash with. Next, you’ll enter a shower area. This is the most important part of your journey to cultural enlightenment. Make sure you completely clean your body before entering any of the baths. The baths are for relaxation, socialisation, and soaking, NOT for cleaning your body! It is forbidden to enter any of the baths without properly showering first. When you first enter, you can take a small stool and a bucket with you. They are usually provided at the side of the entrance or at each shower. Sit on the stool and use the bucket to pour water over yourself as you shower. Once in the bath, ditch the soap! You won’t need anything but an open mind for this experience. If you decide to enter the sauna, it’s important to shower again to rinse off any sweat. After you’re finished soaking, it is not necessary to wash again. Many of these baths contain minerals which are excellent for your skin. Be sure to dry off a bit before entering the tatami mat changing area. Japanese people often drink milk after relaxing in a long hot bath. You will find a vending area filled with all kinds of coffee milk, white milk, and other beverages. This tradition dates back to after World War II when most Japanese houses lacked refrigeration. The bathhouse was one of the only places with modern refrigeration and therefore many people would enjoy a glass after their evening bath.
Today more and more Japanese homes have private bathing accommodation. This has inevitably created a decline in the need for public bathhouses. However, this culture is not so much dying as it is evolving. Today, the bathhouses that remain are similar to a spa. They are places were people come not out of necessity but as a place to relax and socialize. Some businesses have taken the business model of the sent and added a more luxurious element. For example, SpaWorld in Osaka is a large, multi-storey bathing super center. This building boasts extravagant European and Asian style bathing experiences. From Roman and Finnish to Bali and Persian, this mega sento is more like a resort than a traditional experience. However, at just ¥1200, it is a great entry-level experience for foreigners. There are signs available in English and the size of the center allows for more anonymity.