If you’ve read our post on the beauty benefits of onsen water, you already know that hot springs hold a dear place in the hearts of Japanese people for more reasons than one. Due to their high mineral content, onsens offer a very high-quality bath experience, but getting to an onsen can be quite a trek for the busy city-dweller. Did you know that there is a more casual alternative to bathe the authentic Japanese way? The sento is a neighborhood bathhouse found in cities and the countryside. Affordable and convenient, sento are frequented by locals not only for relaxation but socializing purposes. So don’t be surprised if the obasan (older woman) next to you starts chatting you up! And one more important detail – sento-goers bathe respectfully and unashamedly in the nude. So if you can ditch the swimsuit for just an hour, it can prove an eye-opening and humbling experience.
History of the sento
There are numerous recorded references to public baths in ancient times, but the first official sento in Tokyo was built in 1591. The sento phenomenon soared after World War II when many residential homes lacked internal bathing facilities, and communal baths became a way of life. Although the need for sento has diminished in modern times, the sento lives on through the super sento, large health spas that offer amusements including steam baths, whirlpool baths, open-air baths, saunas, restaurants, massages, and even hair salons.
Benefits of a sento bath
Apart from being an affordable winter activity that gives a glimpse of local Japanese life, sento baths are said to provide many health and wellness benefits. The sento bathwater temperature is normally set to around 107.6 °F or 42°C, which can be difficult to arrange at home. This temperature is said to be optimal for relieving fatigue, relaxing stiff muscles, improving metabolism, and uplifting moods. But the sento works wonders on the skin, too. Ask any J-beauty aficionado, and they’ll tell you that the bath steam detoxes the skin by clearing out pores, and hydrates the skin with a misty blanket of moisture.
So how can you make the most of your sento visit? Here are some best practices to follow at a Japanese public bath.
Before you go
All you’ll really need is a towel and a set of clean clothes. While many super sento offer shampoo, conditioner, soap, and other amenities on site, you may want to bring your own products just in case.
Kakeyu: A pre-bath
Before you enter the sento, you’ll want to do a kakeyu or pre-bath. The idea is to remove any sweat, dirt, and makeup from the skin to help keep the sento a sanitary place, but to also accustom your body to the warm water temperature. After you rinse off, remember to rinse off your seat and bucket as a courtesy to the next visitor.
During your bath
While soaking, keep your towel out of the water. It’s common to place it on your head or on the edge of the bathtub.
After your bath
In Japan, wetness indoors is considered unpleasant, so you’ll want to prevent water from dripping all over the dressing room. Just dry off as best you can before reentering, and feel free to use the communal hairdryer inside, too.