Japanese public baths: The difference between a sento and an onsen

Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi
Photo by Takahiro Takiguchi

Japanese public baths: The difference between a sento and an onsen

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

Most foreigners believe that all public baths are onsen. But that’s not true. There is another type of public bath, sento, that also offers you opportunities to take a good soak.

What is the difference between an onsen and sento? The water.

Most sento, which are usually located in the center of a town, use tap or well water. Onsen, usually located on or near a volcanic mountain, contain various minerals and must meet the standard set by laws.

Sento often add artificial bathing salts or powders, various herbs, milk or even sake to the water to enhance bathing effects.

While an onsen often costs 1,000 yen or more depending on the facility and location, admission to a sento runs between 350 to 470 yen, which is decided by each prefecture. The cost is kept low so locals can use them for their daily bathing.

Sento originally provided a bath for people who did not have one at home. Today, 98 percent of sento users have a home with a bath, according to Tokyo Sento Association.

So, why do they people still use sento?

“Sento enables you to take another dimension free from daily troubles and concerns,” says Akira Muranishi, managing director of Tokyo Sento Association. “By visiting sento near you, you can enjoy special time filled with healing and happiness away from the hustle and bustle of city.”

“A sento helps to create a refreshing atmosphere where you can relax in a large tub. It’s more than just about hygiene,” said Joichi Kamichi, also a part of the association. “You can stretch your arms and legs as you wish.”

Visiting a sento

I recently visited a sento for the first time in a couple of years.

I decided to check out Shige-no-yu, a large traditional wooden public bathhouse located in the corner of a residential district near Haneda Airport in Ota-ku, Tokyo. I entered the sento through a temple-like façade, took my shoes off and put them in a small locker before going into men’s area.

Like onsen, bathhouses are segregated – women on one side, men on the other. Small children can enter either section, depending on which parent they accompanied. It must be noted that during the Edo Period, public baths were hot segregated, women and men could bathe together.

I paid 460 yen to a staffer who was sitting at the entrance and went inside. I saw several people in their 60s or 70s dressing or undressing in the disrobing room, along with an old-style scale, fans and massage chairs.

After quickly disrobing, I went into the bathing room and saw a large traditional wall painting of the sea and islands hanging behind a large bathtub.

The total lack of privacy and the speed with which bathers take off their clothes may surprise you. But it’s very similar to onsen. Like at an onsen, you have to wash yourself thoroughly before entering one of the tubs.

Bathers sit facing the wall, on a small stool situated by the faucets for hot and cold water, and wash quickly before entering the tub for a short soak.

Some bathers that day left the tub, did a more thorough scrubbing and then reentered the tub for a much longer soak. I followed the way they did. Remember - all scrubbing should be done outside the tub. Tubs are only for soaking and relaxing.

Like onsen, you may also be surprised with the temperature of water. It’s hot, 108 degree Fahrenheit hot. It might be uncomfortable at first, but I guarantee that with a little patience your body will adjust.
Soaking deeply in the hot tub is good for the body, according to Kamichi. “It can facilitate metabolism and improve your immune system,” he said.  

Yes. It was very relaxing to lie back and rest my head on the edge of the tub. It felt the hot water and rising stream lifted away the day’s anxiety at work.

Now that we are in the coldest season of the year, why not visit a sento near your home and enjoy a blissful bath away from any troubles and concerns?

Industry shrinking

Although sento are regaining popularity, they are facing a crisis.

Thirty of a total of 634 sento in Tokyo close every year, according to the Tokyo Sento Association. Since most small-size sento are mainly operated by families, if no successors are found, many are forced to close.

It is common practice to renovate a Sento every 20 to 30 years. This is the time when many families owning a sento determine whether to keep the business or close, according to Akira Muranishi, managing director of the association.

“We are really concerned that the number of sento could be cut in half in the next few years,” Muranishi said.

Some rules to follow

1. Take off your underwear before you go in the bathing area.

2. Wash yourself well before getting into the tub.

3. Keep your towel out of the tub.

4. Use the shower while sitting, and turn it off when done.

5. Don’t wash your clothes or underwear in the bathing room.

6. Wipe yourself off before entering the dressing area.

– Tokyo Sento Association

A gate to another dimension

♨ There are about 2,800 sento in Japan. (634 in Tokyo).

♨ The number of people who visit a particular sento ranges from 80 to 600 a day.

♨ Admission fees are set by the governor of each prefecture, and range from 350 yen to 470 yen.

♨ 70 percent of sento furnish soap, shampoo and towels.

♨ Most are open from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., although some open in morning.

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