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How to Sento Like a Local: A Guide to Japanese Bathhouses

If you've experienced the delights of an onsen but have never been to a sento, now could be the perfect time to dive into the deeper layers of Japanese culture.



Inside Matsuba Yokujo, a sento in Yurigaoka, Kawasaki. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

Sento, or public bathhouses, have made a comeback in recent years, and somewhat surprisingly among the younger generations. One reason for this could be the resurgence of Showa-era nostalgia, especially among the youth. 

Back in the first half of the Showa era, sento were a necessary part of life, since only the wealthy could afford a bathtub at home.

Once you get past the initial nervousness of a new experience, traditional bathhouses could become your next favorite Japanese pastime.

Matsuba Yokujo opened in 1961. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

What to Expect

Bring a big towel and a small towel with you. You can also use your own toiletries like soap and shampoo. But if you forget something, you can buy it at the sento. 

When you enter, leave your shoes in a locker near the entrance and take the key. Then pay the entrance fee at the counter. Most traditional sento only accept cash.

Shoe lockers by the entrance of the sento. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)
Mrs Ishizuka, who runs Matsuba Yokujo with her husband, sits at the counter. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

The changing rooms might not have signs in English, so memorizing the kanji for man [男] and woman [女] would be helpful. In the changing room, store your belongings in the locker and undress. 

Leave everything in the locker except your locker key, small towel, and amenities, which you can bring into the bathing area. Instead of heading straight to the tubs, grab a stool, choose a shower, and wash yourself thoroughly. 

The women's changing room. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

Soak in and Relax!

Now comes the best part. Choose whichever bath catches your interest, immerse yourself slowly as you adjust to the heat, and feel the stress from the week dissolve away.

Public baths don't have time limits, so spend as long as you like. But don't exert yourself, and make sure you're well-hydrated. There's usually a water fountain near the entrance of the bathing area.

Inside the men's bathing area at Matsuba Yokujo. The men's baths are larger because more men used to visit the sento during the Showa era. (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

Most sento have powerful jacuzzis that are great for relieving tension from your overworked body. There could also be an "extra hot" bath, which is especially lovely in the winter or after a soak in the cold bath. 

Be cautious when stepping into the denkiburo ("electric bath"), as the small electric currents cause a tingling sensation in your muscles. Suffice to say, it's an acquired taste. The icy-cold mizuburo ("water bath") is for advanced bathers. It's perfect for a refreshing cool-down after a sauna or a long soak in a hot bath.

When you've thoroughly enjoyed the baths, make sure to dry yourself before stepping out to the changing room. 

The cold bath at Matsuba Yokujo (© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

Sento Etiquette

Sento is a humble establishment whose purpose is to enrich the lives of the common people. To make the experience enjoyable for everyone, there are some hard and fast rules you should remember.

  1. Use the restroom before entering the bath area. 
  2. Always wash before getting into the bath.
  3. Do not let your towel or hair touch the bath water.
  4. Always dry yourself before going back to the changing room.
  5. Don't splash around or swim. 
  6. Don't talk too loudly.

How to Find a Sento

If you're wondering how to find a sento, the easiest way is to use Google Maps. When searching, use the kanji for sento (銭湯) instead of the romanized "sento" to get more results. 

Additionally, you might come across "super sento," which are more like modern entertainment complexes with baths, spas, and restaurants, rather than the traditional sento depicted in the photos here. As with any other destination, remember to check the opening hours, photos, and reviews before you go.

(© JAPAN Forward by Miruka Adachi)

Coming Soon:  Into the Culture of Japanese Sento through Matsuba Yokujo


Author: Miruka Adachi

(Read the related article in Japanese.)

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