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Japan’s public baths hope foreign tourists will help keep the taps running

by

Staff Photographer

Japan’s public baths, known as sento, represent an institution with hundreds of years of history. They provided an important public service in the days before homes had their own hot-water bathtubs.

The entrance of the Inariyu sento in Tokyo
The entrance of the Inariyu sento in Tokyo’s Kita Ward is designed like that of a temple. It was a common architectural style for sento in Tokyo. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Sento can range in style from simple hot springs piped into a large tub to modern facilities resembling theme parks and offering a range of therapies.

This sento has a large dressing space with lockers for customers

In the Edo Period (1603-1868), sento were so popular that every town had on. They were important centers of the community.

Yasuhiro Tsuchimoto, the fourth owner of the Inariyu sento, pours warm water over the floor when the facility opens in the early afternoon to keep bathers

Sento are on the decline both because homes now have fully fledged bathrooms and because retiring operators find it hard to find successors to take on their businesses. There are now around 630 establishments in Tokyo, down from 2,700 in 1968, a peak year for sento.

One of the baths at the Inariyu sento in Tokyo
One of the baths at the Inariyu sento in Tokyo’s Kita Ward bubbles away for customers to soak in. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Faced with this trend, the Tokyo Sento Association is trying to tap demand from non-Japanese residents and tourists.

A sign in English at a sento helps non-Japanese customers, in a bid to draw more custom.
A sign in English at a sento helps non-Japanese customers, in a bid to draw more custom. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

It has installed explanatory signs at each facility showing non-Japanese speakers how to use a sento in five languages. It also plans to create an app for people to search for sento in English.

This section, appearing in the first week of each month, explores in photographs neighborhoods of interest.

  • Charlie Sommers

    I lived in western Tokyo-to for eight years in the decade of the 1960s. I walked to the local sento almost everyday for both bathing and socializing with neighbors. There are few things as comforting as a good soak in a tub of hot water. I feel great nostalgia for the sento.

  • KimAnn West

    what of the tattoo policies? will each sento decide on there own? just wondering about all the tattoo visitors and residents. thank you.

  • 69station

    No, this can’t be true! According to the expert (Arudou Debito) foreigners aren’t allowed in Japanese baths.

    • Yuki

      um,I was in one last summer when I visited there, and the year before that as well. Nobody cared.

      • 69station

        I was being sarcastic. I have been to hundreds over a period of 25 years with never a problem and, indeed, with many warm welcomes.

    • Western Barbarian

      As a very large foreigner with no tattoos, let me say I completely understand the Japanese aversion to the sight of tattooed foreigners in the sento.

  • Mina Mina

    I often go to sento with my friend. That heals me.

  • Anil Samal

    The sento/Onsen is the best place to forget about the whole world; Stop your mind to think of all the problems of life; Make the body relax.
    I go there every weekend :-)

  • Anil Samal

    The sento/Onsen is the best place to forget about the whole world; Stop your mind to think of all the problems of life; Make the body relax.
    I go there every weekend :-)