The sento, or public bath, is one of many rituals in Japanese culture that foreigners would be smart to research before they disrobe. While the Japanese are generally very forgiving of our cultural blunders, the sento is one setting where the uninformed can make remarkably offensive mistakes. Sento etiquette may not be familiar to westerners – in fact, the idea of “bathing” without soap may even seem counter-intuitive – but the ignorant risk being corrected on the spot, which can be even more embarrassing when you’re naked and they’re speaking Japanese.
Neighborhood bath houses are still common in Japan, even though most floor plans of private houses have included a bathing area since the 1950’s. Student housing, low rent apartment buildings, and older homes may have toilets but often no shower or tub. Many Japanese continue to use the sento (even if they have a bath at home) because of the community aspect it offers or because some of the modern sento facilities offer dozens of bathing options they can’t get at home: herbal baths, very hot soaks, cold plunges, jacuzzis, saunas, steam rooms, and more.
You can identify a sento from the street by the hiragana letter for “yu”, which refers to “hot water”.
There will be a single entrance where you remove your shoes and pay the fee ($3-$4), but then men and women enter their own side of the sento through separate doorways. The cashier sits between the rooms and can see into both changing rooms.
Once inside, find a locker, basket, or cubby hole to put your clothes. Disrobe and take your soap, shampoo, and small washing towel into the bathing area. Leave your larger drying towel (there is no dry place to hang it in the sento room) as well as any lotions, powders, creams, shaving or tooth brushing items with your clothes. Once inside the sliding, fogged up glass doors, choose an open washing area along the wall. There may be plastic stools to perch on in front of the low spigots and showers – you’re supposed to sit as you wash. Some sentos may have shower stalls, but most Japanese prefer to sit and use the showerheads (at waist height) and faucets (even lower on the wall).
Be prepared to be looked at and watched – foreigners have interesting bodies – and be prepared to accept help from fellow bathers on how to regulate the water temperature, find a plastic stool, use the rinsing basin, and so on. Anyone who speaks English might take this opportunity to practice conversation.
The basic sequence is sit, get wet, soap up, rinse off, then, once you are clean and soap-free, soak in a tub of your choice. Seems simple, but there are many layers of unspoken bathing conventions many westerners may not be familiar with. For example, speak softly if at all, rinse any borrowed items (stool, basin) before and after using them, always wash from head to toe (the reverse is unclean), turn off the showerhead while you wash or shampoo so as to not waste water, rinse your area when you’re done, and in general, maintain a small, quiet, efficient presence. If your washing area is near the tubs, be very careful not to inadvertently flick soap into the communal tub water. Be sure to rinse all of the soap off of every part of your hair and body before even thinking of entering any of the soaking tubs.
Ah…the tubs. Leave your soaps on a ledge in the washing area and move to the bathing area. Modest Japanese will hold their small towel in front of their private parts, but if you bring yours into the bathing area make sure it has been rinsed clean and that it never goes into the bathing water. Put it on your head before entering a tub!
Depending on the age and size of the sento, there might be three to ten or more bathing tubs, each with a different offering. In the center is usually the largest, hottest tub, sure to challenge even the most dedicated hot tub connoisseur. Other tubs might have warm to cold temperatures, herbs to relax and soothe, or massaging jets. Beware the tub with the warning placard that looks like an electric current – it IS an electric current, which is used to relax sore and tense muscles. The sensation is strongest (and most painful) closest to the walls, so if you opt to try it, step into the center of the tub first and then decide if you want to try sitting down.
Stay as long as you like, sample the different tubs, relax, and enjoy the experience. It is not OK to leave the bathing area to go to the changing area and return to the tubs without washing all over again, so be sure to use the toilet and have your drink before you wash. When you’re ready to leave, take your soaps and towel to the changing area, dry off and dress, then feel free to sit and relax for a while before heading for your shoes. Don’t rush anything.
Nancy McDonough was for many years an English teacher in Japan. She is conversant in Japanese and travels to Japan yearly. She founded her retail kimono company in 1992. Nancy currently manages her kimono retail company Kyoto Kimono and her blog is here, Kyoto Kimono Mania.
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