Not simply as a means to get clean, “sento,” or public baths, have traditionally been places where communication flowed. Bathing and chatting together with one’s friends and neighbors in the buff exemplifies the off-guardedness of the most informal relationships.
The practice goes back centuries, with roots, many believe, in Buddhism.
In recent years, however, neighborhood sento have dried up as more private homes become equipped with their own baths. In many cases, sento have evolved into large spa facilities such as “super sento” or “health lands,” where everything from baths to body massages are available.
Sento, meanwhile, has attracted worldwide attention as a locus of discrimination against non-Japanese who are not familiar with the custom.
Here are some questions and answers about sento:
What is the history of sento?
Since ancients times, the people of India, where Buddhism originated, had the notion of purifying the body and soul, which was done at temple baths.
When Buddhism arrived here in the sixth century, Japanese temples installed baths, which initially were used by monks and some others to treat illness.
Around the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), the baths were opened to the general public.
Originally, the baths were steamy like saunas. People entered a steam-filled room and wiped off the sweat.
Sento of the Edo Period (1603-1867) were very different from the current form. Pitch dark inside, visitors would cough to alert others of their presence.
Back then, most sento were for mixed bathing. According to historical records, over two-thirds of sento in Tokyo let men and women bathe together.
Although government bans on mixed bathing were occasionally issued, they were not widely enforced, according to the Tokyo Sento Association.
The number of sento in the capital, meanwhile, rose to almost 3,000 by around 1941, when the Pacific War broke out. The number plunged to around 400 by 1945, some the victim of bombings, others to the mobilization of owners and personnel for the war effort.
After the war, public baths rose again to a peak of 2,687 in 1968. Showers started being installed from the mid-1960s.
How many sento are there now?
According to the association, the number in the capital has continued to decline since 1968, numbering just 1,287 in 2000, or less than half the all-time high.
The association attributes the drop to the difficulties in managing the facilities and a lack people interested in carrying on the business.
Since the 1960s, more homes featured baths and the sento became less-frequented, putting a further strain on the businesses, the association said.
And fewer people are willing now to do the hard work required of maintaining a sento, including boiling adequate amounts of water and keeping the baths clean, according to the association.
What is the recent trend of sento?
In recent years, super sento and health lands have grown popular.
These facilities have various types of baths, from bubble to water-jet to open-air and footbaths. Many have flat rocks on which to lie and relax, or sand baths where one can be buried in warm sand. Some facilities even have fish that nibble at the skin on your feet, giving them a clean and smooth appearance.
In addition to bathing, operators offer antiaging, dieting and fatigue-recovery treatments.
Lounging around in a colorful “yukata” bathing kimono, patrons can also play Japanese chess, eat snacks, sushi and other fare, have their fortunes read or buy souvenirs.
With so much to do, it’s entirely possible to spend an entire day at a super sento or health land.
How much does it cost to bathe at a sento?
To ensure public health by making them affordable to all, each prefecture sets an upper limit on what an ordinary sento can charge.
As of December, the price for an adult ranged from ¥280 in Saga Prefecture to ¥450 in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefectures. Sento in Osaka and Kyoto prefectures can charge up to ¥410.
Super sento are not subject to price regulation, thus they usually cost into the thousands of yen.
What is the bathing etiquette in sento?
The association asks visitors to follow a list of rules, including: “Do not bathe while drunk,” “Wash your body before bathing,” “Do not use a towel and soap in the bathtub,” “Take off your underwear before you bathe,” and “Do not splash hot water onto others.”
Users exiting the bath also advised to towel off and avoid walking around the changing room wet.
What problems have arisen regarding foreigners using sento?
In 1999, a then U.S. citizen and a German were refused entry by a bathhouse in Hokkaido because they were foreigners. Another American was also denied admission there in 2000.
The bathhouse had put up a multilingual sign that included the English phrase “Japanese only.” The owners took this step, they said, to avoid the trouble other facilities in the area had experienced with drunken Russian sailors, which caused Japanese customers to stay away.
The three filed suit in 2001, seeking a combined ¥6 million in damages from the city and the bathhouse operator.
The Sapporo District Court in 2002 dismissed the suit against the city but ordered the bathhouse operator to pay ¥1 million to each of the three plaintiffs. The high court upheld the lower court ruling but the Supreme Court in 2005 rejected an appeal seeking damages from the city.
Why do some sento have drawings and paintings of Mount Fuji on their walls?
According to the association, Mount Fuji first appeared in a Tokyo sento during the Taisho Era (1912-1926).
Proving massively popular, other sento in the Kanto region followed suit, reinforcing the connection in many people’s minds between sento and Mount Fuji.
It’s not known why Mount Fuji was depicted in the first place.