Foreigners to get info on ‘sento’ etiquette

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Tokyo’s “sento” public bathhouses are making an effort to become foreigner-friendly by printing multilingual brochures and posters to explain Japan’s communal bathing etiquette ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

“We know some foreign travelers have shown interest in the bathhouses as a unique aspect of Japanese culture,” Katsutoshi Kuromasa, a section chief at the Tokyo Sento Association, said Friday. He added that member bathhouse operators in popular tourist spots like Asakusa in Taito Ward have recently seen more foreigners trying out the mass baths.

“We expect an increase in the number of travelers and those who would like to bathe at bathhouses as the Olympic Games come to Tokyo in 2020,” said Kuromasa, who expressed hope the brochures and posters will help foreigners learn more about the cultural experience.

Written in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese, the recently published pamphlet explains the history of public baths and communal bathing in Japan.

The posters, which are to be put up in all of Tokyo’s public baths from mid-October, outline all the steps, from taking off one’s shoes before entering the facility and paying the fee to making sure one washes thoroughly before taking a soak.

The association has also distributed a pointing-based manual to all public bathhouses in the capital that helps staff communicate with foreign guests who can’t speak Japanese by simply pointing at the desired questions and responses in the manual.

A total of 20,000 brochures will be provided for free from mid-October at public baths and the three Tokyo Tourist Information Centers, at Tokyo City Hall in Shinjuku Ward, Haneda airport in Ota Ward and Keisei Ueno Station in Taito Ward.

Public bathhouses served as community gathering places in the past, but their numbers have fallen over recent decades as more dwellings include their own bathing facilities.

As of the end of September, Tokyo had 710 public bathhouses, according to the association.

The bathing fee in Tokyo is ¥450 for those 12 and older, ¥180 for those 6 to 11, and ¥80 for children under 5.

  • Guy DE LA RUPELLE

    Well, that’s a step in the right direction, but that article leaves me with 3 questions. One, is that’s very well and good that the Tokyo Sento Association is trying hard and having these “bathing manuals” printed but it is not clear whether these manuals also address the “no tattoo” rules many establishments have. The other question is why are these pamphlets only distributed in Tokyo? I live in Chiba, and already know that some athletes will be staying in the Narita area, and perhaps areas around Makuhari Messe, Chiba City and Urayasu, not to mention Yokohama.
    Lastly, I think that this same idea should be extended to onsen as well. A high number of foreigners will probably be extending their visit and will want to go to places like Nikko, Chichibu, Kyoto or Hiroshima, where they will stay in minshuku or ryokan where the same rules will apply. Great idea for Tokyo, but which should be widened quite a bit to include other cities where athletes and/or their families are sure to go.

  • Bradley Temperley

    As the first commenter says, there’s probably a few more points needed, such as avoiding alcohol beforehand, which side should children go (7 years old seems to be the cut-off) and basically how to get the most from your visit.

  • Noriyo Ann Sekiyama

    I hope bathhouses are ready to change their guidelines about no tattoos. In this day and age, many young people have them, as well as most American servicemen. You can’t exclude them from partaking inthis experience of a lifetime.

    • Christopher-trier

      At the same time many people still feel very uncomfortable around people with tattoos. Most young Japanese do not have them and Americans really must learn that they will he held to account for their decisions in different cultural settings, be it their behaviours, dress or tattoos. If they insist on getting tattoos they can find a bath house that will allow them to use their facilities.

  • Steve

    While I commend the attempt to make things more accessible for non-Japanese speakers, I would also like to point out that in my experience it is generally the locals who fail to follow the etiquette rules rather than the tourist. I would say its at least around a one in three chance that, whilst you are soaking in the relaxing waters after correctly scrubbing yourself down, some ojisan walks in, heads straight to the bath, give himself a cursory once over with the bath bucket and plunges right in.
    Perhaps they also need signs for these people too.

    • expat88

      My stepsons are 100% Japanese, and we took them to an onsen. The two of them just ran in and jumped into the bath. I had to scold them and explain that that’s not how things are done.

      I do find myself in the same position you’re in. This idea that I’m unable to comprehend onsen because I’m foreign, yet here I am literally teaching Japanese people the correct way to do things.

      I teach Japanese children Japanese culture. I don’t need to be condescended to.

    • Steve

      i completely agree. This happens all the time – there I am, the gaijin, diligently cleaning myself before entering the bath, only to see the locals dive straight in. It’s getting to the point now when I am not even sure if the perceived etiquette rules are actually still in force or not.

  • Christopher-trier

    It would also be nice if the information were published in more Western languages than English. Most people in the Western world do not speak English as a native language and many, even if they are conversant in it, do not understand everything. I have worked in tourist sites and on numerous occasions visitors from Italy, France, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, Germany and Russia could not speak English well — if it all.

  • expat88

    ““We know some foreign travelers have shown interest in the bathhouses as a unique aspect of Japanese culture,”

    It might seem like I’m splitting hairs, but this is the exact kind of attitude that I try to avoid in my children and students.

    Sorry, but public bathing is not unique to Japan. No one is showing interest in “the bathhouses as a unique aspect of Japanese culture.” Peculiar, particular, or unusual aspect, sure. But not unique.

    This overemphasis on “uniqueness” in Japan always gets to me, because people always focus on non-unique things while the truly unique ones just get ignored!

  • José Luis Rosado Santiago

    As pointed out in a previous comment, public baths are hardly unique to Japanese culture. I have enjoyed public baths in northern Africa, central Europe and even in the US. This incorrect and dangerous idea of “uniqueness,” perpetuated, not only by the Japanese but also by non-Japanese, needs to be wiped out.

    I also hope that the organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics–and other activities derived from them–realize soon that English is not the only language spoken outside of Japan.