A Japanese bathhouse (or sentō) has been an important part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. Every day people from all over the country are heading to the sentō to enjoy their bath.
While this is common in Japan, a sentō is not well known to westerners. With more and more foreigners traveling to Japan, it only makes sense to get the word out there about these amazing Japanese bathhouses. The only problem is many visitors are nervous about visiting a sento, since it is a requirement to be nude around strangers. But the reality is it is not that bad, and once you let your nerves and timidity down you’ll see that a Japanese bathhouse is a cultural experience to be had. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting a Japanese sento.
1. What is a Japanese Sento?
The short answer is a sento is a Japanese public bathhouse usually separated by sex and open to all.
2. Why Do People Go to Sentos?
Back in the day most Japanese didn’t have baths in their home, so they went to public bathhouses to bath a few times a week. These sentos were essentially in every neighborhood so the local residents could bath and socialize.
Of course, now with modern times, most people have baths in their house, but still enjoy the sento bathing experience. Both sentos and onsens are very important to Japanese culture, but sadly due to the accessibility of baths, modern culture, and rising costs sentos around Tokyo and all of Japan are closing.
3. What is the Difference Between a Sento and an Onsen?
If you’ve researched Japan at all you’ve likely heard of a Japanese onsen. They are well known around the world and can be a highlight of any trip to Japan.
There’s honestly not a huge difference between a sento and an onsen, but there is a difference. Sentos are public bathhouses with artificially heated water. Sentos come in many shapes and sizes, depending on where you go you may find jacuzzies, saunas, and cold water baths.
An onsen is a natural hot spring formed underground. The water is heated by geothermal energy. So if you find yourself in an outdoor bath you are most likely at an onsen.
It’s important to note the difference so you don’t arrive at a sento expecting a natural geothermal hot spring from the earth.
4. What Do you Need to Bring to Enjoy Sento?
Not much! You’ll be naked! However some things you will want are a drying towel for your body, and many people also bring a small wash towel. These are not provided free of charge at the sento, but are typically available if you forget yours for a small fee.
Of course if you have plans after your sento experience you’ll want to bring the things you need after you typically get done bathing. Underwear, clothes, make up…things like that!
5. What Amenities are Available at the Sento?
Almost all sentos will have a hairdryer in the changing rooms, and some may have extra items like Q-tips and hair spray. Inside the actual bathhouse you can expect to find body wash and shampoo, and many that I visited even have conditioner. If you are like me and always need conditioner and fash wash when you bath it’s best to bring these items with you.
Many sentos have things like razors and deodorant available for purchase as well.
6. Can I Wear my Shoes or Slippers Inside the Sento?
It’s important to take off your outdoor shoes at the entrance of the sento. There will be a locker provided for your shoes. Removing your shoes at homes and bathhouses in Japan is common practice.
It is also not common to wear slippers inside the sento or changing rooms. Toilet slippers will be provided at the entrance of the toilet room.
7. How Much Does Sento Cost?
There are 530 sentos in Tokyo alone. Almost all of them are members of the Tokyo Sento Association and charge ¥470 for admission. Some sentos may have a sauna and those typically cost extra. If you want anything else extra like a towel or drink make sure to bring some change. As with most of Japan make sure to bring cash to pay. Most sentos will not be able to accept credit card.
Note* Some sentos you will pay directly at the traditional attendant’s booth, while some have a ticket vending machine where you will purchase the ticket and then hand it to the attendant.
8. Can You Wear a Bathing Suit in the Sento?
No. Bathing suits are not allowed in sentos. It is customary to be fully naked inside the bathhouse. Foreigners should comply with this Japanese custom. Trust me no one cares that you are naked or will be “looking” at you. This has been a cultural norm for hundreds of years and the Japanese are used to bathing naked amongst others. Don’t worry in sento everyone is equal – every social status, shape, size and age!
If you “try” to wear a bathing suit in the sento I promise you that you will feel more awkward than being naked. It’s not likely that a Japanese person will say anything to you, but inside they will not be pleased.
9. Are Sentos Separated by Sex?
Both sentos and onsens are separated by sex almost immediately after entering the establishment. Men’s bath are typically represented by a blue curtain and women’s are marked with a red curtain. If you get confused just ask the front desk attendant and they will point you in the right direction.
10. Are Tattoos Allowed at the Sento?
Tattoos are not common in Japan, and it was once thought that if you had a tattoo you were a member of the notorious Yakuza. Therefore, sentos and onsens banned tattoos from the bathhouse.
However, times are changing and most sentos owners are aiming to be more accepting towards tattoos. Now around 90% of the sentos in Tokyo gladly accept those with tattoos into their premises to create a warm and welcoming environment for everyone.
If tattoos are not allowed you will definitely know at the entrance as there will be signs.
11. Do I Have to Wash First?
Yes. It’s important to wash your body first before getting into the bath. In every sento you will see rows of numerous shower heads with stools for washing. Near the shower head you’ll likely find soap and shampoo. It’s important to wash your body off here before entering the bath.
It may seem intimidating, but it’s not hard! Just sit (don’t stand) on the stool and turn on the showerhead and begin washing. Remember that when not using the shower head you should turn the water off so you don’t’ waste it.
It’s not a necessity to wash your hair if you don’t want to. Just make sure that if you have longer hair that it’s not touching the bathwater. Bring hair ties so that you pull it up into a bun when relaxing.
12. What is the Small Towel For?
When enjoying sento you’ll notice that most people will have a small towel with them. This is for washing or whatever you want it for. Do not put the towel in the water of the bath. When enjoying the bath the towel should be placed on top of your head.
13. Can I Walk Around with a Towel?
It’s perfectly acceptable to walk the changing room with a towel, once you enter the bath it’s pretty normal to be naked from here on out. Remember to place your towel somewhere dry and away from the bathwater when in the bath so you have it when you get out.
14. When Are Sentos Typically Open?
Every sento is different, but most open at 3pm and stay open until 11 or 12.
15. Can I Bring my Phone or Camera into the Sento?
Phones and cameras are not permitted in a Japanese sento or onsen – people are nude and obviously want their privacy. Note that I have photos of myself in the sento in this post, but I was in the sento before opening hours and had special permission to take photos for this article.
16. How Can I find Sentos Around Tokyo and the Rest of Japan?
Typing in “sento” to Google maps will yield many results for sentos around Tokyo or anywhere else that you are in Japan. You’ll know that you reached the sento when you find the Noren hanging outside the entrance.
This is a curtain that is hung at the entrance of buildings in Japan when they are open. The sento symbol is a oval with three curved lines rising out of it (for heat). See the photo above!
17. Can you Talk in a Sento?
Sentos are a place for conversation and socializing (although not loud ones). However, if you aren’t with a friend and you don’t speak Japanese chances are you will be conversing with no one. But don’t be surprised if other people are having low key conversations around you.
18. How Hot is the Water?
Some of the sento water can get seriously HOT. In one Japanese bath I was in on the Kumano Kodo I couldn’t stand it more than five minutes and had to exit. If you start to feel lightheaded it’s important to get out of the water and either go in the cooler water for a bit or call it a day.
19. Are Sentos Intimidating?
Your first sento or onsen experience may be a little intimidating, but after a few minutes, you’ll start to relax and feel right at home. They are meant to be relaxing for visitors and after your nerves calm down about being naked in front of others you’ll soon fall right into the swing of things. Don’t worry if you don’t do things perfectly the first time, but in saying that most sento customs are pretty much common sense.
The main things to remember are no bathing suits, wash beforehand, and to keep your towel out of the tub.
20. How Does a Typical Sento Experience Go?
A typical sento experience will go something like this:
- Step 1: Enter the sento and remove your shoes. There will be lockers to place your shoes. Some sentos also have umbrella holders, leave the umbrella here.
- Step 2: Pay for the sento either with the attendant or at the vending machine
- Step 3: Enter either the mens or women’s changing rooms. Undress completely and get ready for sento! Put your belongings in the provided lockers.
- Step 4: Enter the bathhouse with your bathing items. Find yourself a shower spot with a stool.
- Step 5: Wash yourself before entering the bathtub. If you have long hair you can wash it or tie it up so it’s not in the bathwater.
- Step 6: Enjoy the sento! Some sentos will have multiple baths ranging in temperature. You may also find that there is a sauna or outdoor bath as well.
- Step 7: When you are done dry your body off and get ready to leave the sento.
- Step 8: It is typical to enjoy a glass of cold milk, cold coffee, beer, or other refreshments after sento. You can find these for purchase outside the changing rooms where you entered.
21. Why Should You go to Sento as a Foreigner?
Part of the fun about traveling in Japan is immersing yourself in a completely new and different culture. Japanese bathhouses (sentos AND onsens) are both unique to Japan, so to travel to Japan and not visit one would be a mistake in my opinion.
I’ve been to over 10 different onsens and sentos, and once you get over the fear of getting naked in front of strangers your first time each one after that is a relaxing experience.
Additionally, as mentioned before sento numbers are down and sadly many are closing shop. As tourist it’s important to support and give back to the community in which you are visiting, and going to sento does just that. Every sento I’ve been to is happy to see foreigners walk through their door and eager to share their culture!
Plus don’t you want to sit and contemplate your fun travel day around Japan in a relaxing environment?
22. What Sentos Should you Visit While in Tokyo?
I visited four different sentos while in Toko and each one was unique in it’s own way.
This sento is tucked away in the back of Koreatown down a quiet street. Like most sentos in Tokyo, Mannen-Yu is family run by Nobuyoshi-san and Satsuki-san. The inside is modern, and sparkling clean. The owners told me the sento has actually just been refurbished. On both the men and women’s side there is a hot bath, tepid bath, and cold bath.
Hasunuma Onsen is gorgeous and brings you back to a different era in Japan. This is another 3rd generation owned family sento and onsen. Here you can find a carbonated spring, cold bath, sauna, and hot spring bath (be careful – it’s really hot)! This onsen is on the way to Haneda Airport, so it’s a good place to stop before or after your flight.
Kairyo-Yu is an extremely modern sento that matches the style of nearby Shibuya station. Upon entering this sento you feel as though you’ve stepped into another world. The artwork on the walls depicts scenes from Shibuya and are relaxing to look at as you are enjoying your bath. There’s also a cold bath and sauna here.
This sento is one of the oldest ones in Tokyo. Built in 1930 Inari-Yu is a timeless Japanese bath where you can soak in the warm waters while admiring a painting of Mt. Fuji on the wall. This sento has retained the charm and character of its early 1900s look, but the bathroom itself has been renovated completely. This is also the only sento I visited that still has wooden buckets and a Japanese style garden with carp.
Enjoy Your Japanese Sento Experience!
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