Japan is famous for its volcanic landscape and one of its elements are hot springs, or onsen. Japanese people really like to take health, hot baths in them. But onsen are usually expensive, exclusive and for special occasions like holidays. That’s why, in Japan, public baths – sento are still very popular. They are much cheaper than onsen and you can find them in every city. For many centuries sento fulfilled many functions and the hygienic function was, in fact, the least important. You could relax there, make friends, discuss things important for the local community and even find a future wife or husband. It was also a place where the class system of Japanese society where stripped away. Nowadays, sento continues to fulfill many of these functions and despite the fact that practically every Japanese home has a bath now, a visit to the public bath is still an important part of the daily life of many Japanese people. But you must remember that you need to follow the rules during your visit in sento.
A sento is a large public bathing facility with a set entry fee. System of paying to bathe began around 800 years ago in a Buddhist temple. The large bathtubs used by the monks for purification rituals have been made available to the local community. In the eighteenth century, public baths became a common element of urban life. Each local community had one or two sento. In those days, bathing in the house was banned for fear of fires so everyone used the public bathhouses: men, women and children. The class system that existed at that time which divided people into samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants, didn’t apply to sento. Even then, the sento was a place to spend time with friends and neighbors while bathing.
There are currently about 4,000 public baths in Japan. This number is impressive but in the 1960s and 1970s there were four times as many. The water in the bathhouse was heated with wood which is why each sento had a long chimney. It was an important element of the landscape which served also as a landmark because there were no tall buildings then. Sento in Tokyo are unique architectural works. After the earthquake in 1923 they were rebuilt by a temple builders which is why they looked like a Shintoist shrine or Buddhist temple. You can still find a bathhouse in this style in Tokyo, although most of them were destroyed during World War II.
A characteristic feature of the sento in Tokyo is also a mural with the landscape of Mount Fuji on the back wall of the bathing hall. The mural must be large and bright, give a sense of distance in space and present the landscape as naturally as possible. In the painting, Fuji is always located by the water: by the lake, sea or waterfall, so that we have the impression that we are bathing at the foot of this sacred mountain. Humid air and mold damage the paintings so every few years they are painted anew. Currently in Japan there are only three painters specializing in this type of wall paintings. They only have a few hours to paint the whole work when the sento is closed to the customers.
Also water in Tokyo’s sento is more hot than in the bath houses in other parts of Japan. It is heated to 42 degrees Celsius and it is a tradition that dates back to Edo period. The reason for this habit is very simple. The city bath houses had loads of customers so they didn’t want people to spent too much time in the big tubs. That’s why they raised the water temperature.
For centuries, the public bath was a very important place for socializing, as well as a place where children learned the principles of functioning in society. Until the late nineteenth century, the mixed bathing of men and women was the norm. Sento was also a good place to find a future spouse. In a way, it served as a dating service for men and women. But then people from the west started coming to Japan and with them the influence of Christianity. They were said that Japanese people are barbarians, just because of the mixed bathing. At the end of the 19th century, the government issued a ban on mixed baths but nothing changed for the next 20 years, because this tradition was so deeply rooted in the Japanese nation.
How to use sento?
Today, sento is still divided in half and there are separate bathing rooms for women and men.
- The management center of each sento is bandai – place where the employee sits and where you can pay a fee.
- You should take off your shoes and put them in the locker.
- The next step is very important! You have to choose a room according to your gender but in traditional sento do not expect pictographs or English signs.
- In the tight room, you take off your clothes and leave them in the next locker. The swimsuit is forbidden! You have to be naked.
- You must take a shower before bathing. Sit down on a special stool but be careful not to splash water to people sitting next to you and they usually sit very close… so close that you can touch their knees.
- When you are squeaky clean it’s time for the bath. You should have a small towel with you but never put it in the water! You wrap it up and put it on your head.
- After a relaxing and hot bath, it’s time for another pleasant ritual. In the vending machine you can buy cool milk, traditionally flavored with coffee but also other flavors are available.
“Gokuraku!”This means “paradise” in Japanese and Japanese people are eager to use this term when taking a bath in sento.
Because it is not only a place where we can take care of body hygiene but also relax, rest and socialize. After years of decline in popularity, sento are again becoming an important part of Japanese life. On the one hand, modern bath houses are built for example in hotels. On the other hand, the traditional style sento are being rebuilt. There are two or three floors, where you can go after bath. You can drink green tea there, eat a meal and continue to integrate with local residents. Sento again become a place where the life of the local people is focused.