There are many things that Japan is known for; from anime to high-speed trains, there’s a bunch of different things to catch your interest, no matter where it lies. However, for every experience you can have in Japan, there’s one you’d be hard pressed to find naysayers for: the sentou.
▎What is a sentou?
“Sentou” is the Japanese word for public baths. While a concept that is not particularly familiar to people from countries like the United States, public bathing is quite a normalized thing in Japan.
Your first experience with a sentou can often be quite intimidating, but don’t fret! Sentous are some of the best places to rest and relax after a long day, or even meet with your friends for a day off! Many sentou, in addition to baths, will have various other forms of entertainment and relaxation media, including arcade machines, dining areas, and massage parlors, making them the perfect candidates for a relatively cheap staycation. Additionally, many sentous will allow you to rent things like yukata and towel sets, meaning that you won’t even have to pack a bag for a day trip!
▎Sentou or Onsen?
The difference between these two terms can often be confusing, and many people (myself included) have been guilty of interchanging the two. However, “onsen” more properly refers to natural hot springs, the likes of which are not often found in Tokyo, due to its distance from any volcanoes. While Japan is positively swimming in hot springs, going to a proper one is generally a much fancier affair, with a higher price tag to match.
Natural hot spring baths will often have much more traditional experiences and are often associated with certain areas of the country, making them popular tourist destinations.
Sentou, by comparison, are much more domestic, being seen as everyday destinations, and the prices reflect this; cheaper sentou can cost as little as 400 yen (roughly $4 USD) or cheaper, though they will often have facilities matching the price. As such, you’ll find people who visit their local sentou once a week or more, and this can often be cheaper than the water bill if you regularly take baths at home.
As with most public experiences, there are several unspoken rules of etiquette in Japanese public baths that are useful to know going in, to ensure that you have the smoothest experience possible.
Being a foreigner
As you may have heard, there are some public baths that do not allow foreigners. In Tokyo, these are much less common, but if you’re uncertain, it helps to check if the sentou you plan to visit has a website; if the place is older and without a website (and you can speak a little Japanese), you can always give them a phone call, as well! As a rule, larger sentou (often referred to as super sentou) will generally be more open to foreigners, while the ones most likely to bar them will be small, local baths in residential areas.
Tattoos are in a similar situation to foreigners, and the general rules for what places will allow tattoos are often the same as those for foreign patrons. However, it’s important to note that many more upscale sentou will have enforced bans on tattoos, and even places that allow tattoos will often require that they be covered up. This is because, in Japan, tattoos are generally associated with gangs, so the stigma pushes many establishments to discourage allowing them to be shown off.
Many places that require tattoos to be covered will provide a cover or two per customer; however, they will often also not allow you to proceed if the provided cover does not completely cover your tattoo, and they do not tend to allow you to take more to make it so. It can be helpful to cover your tattoos before going, but tattoo covers can be expensive and difficult to find, so your mileage may vary. If you have a tattoo sleeve or full chest tattoo especially, getting into a sentou or an onsen can be a veritable nightmare, as there are very, very few sentou that allow completely uncovered tattoos, and you have the possibility of running into actual gang members at those.
Though it may seem somewhat redundant at first glance, it is common courtesy to shower before you actually dip into any of the baths at a sentou. This is because the baths are for soaking and relaxation rather than for cleaning yourself, so it’s important to already be clean before hopping in. All sentou will have a shower area next to the baths, and almost all of them will have basic body soap, shampoo, and conditioner; however, these do not tend to be particularly high quality, so if you have particular skincare or hair care needs, it may not be a bad idea to bring your own, though it might not be the most convenient way to live.
As you might expect, everyone in a public bath will be in the nude. However, while many people will bring a small towel into the bath with them, it is generally not the best manners to cover yourself with your hands or a towel while in the bath. While this can feel incredibly embarrassing on your first few visits, it’s something that most foreign visitors manage to completely stop thinking about after a few times. Even with friends, it’s common to just stop noticing the nudity after a while.
If you’re a person with a beating heart, the sentou can be an excellent place to spend an afternoon, or even just drop by after a long day at work. Since most sentous are open until late at night, you can head out almost any time the mood strikes you, provided that you have the transportation. Due to their popularity, as well, there’s nearly always a sentou within walking distance, provided you live in a residential area. If you can get over the initial embarrassment that you may feel walking through the door, you’re in for an excellent bit of rest and relaxation at a reasonable price.