Discovering Japan’s true bathing traditions at Ota’s Sento
When I think of baths in Japan I generally think of hot springs nestled amongst the mountains where you can relax whilst breathing in the crisp air and enjoy a sense of recluse from your busy life. From documentaries that we see on Japan you may even expect to share your hot spring experience with a group of monkeys. However, there is another side to bathing in Japan; one that is much closer to Japanese people’s daily lives but practically unknown to foreigners. The world of Sento.
The word Sento refers to public bathhouses set in local communities and it is here you can experience Japan’s deeply rooted bathing traditions. Ota is home to the most Sento of all the cities in Tokyo and on the 10th October, Sento Day here in Tokyo, I got the chance to visit a couple of these and experience the continuing role that they play in people’s day to day lives.
The first Sento that I visited was Kugahara-yu. Tucked away amongst the small houses lining the narrow streets it is only discernible by the curtains at the entrance, a characteristic on Sento that feature the character for hot water, yu, on them. Those unable to read Japanese might just walk past without noticing the public bathhouses existence at all but once you find it and enter you get a real sense of community and the role that Sento play in preserving Japanese bathing traditions. After speaking with some locals enjoying a drink after their bath, I entered through another set of curtains to enjoy my bath.
Obviously, for some the idea of getting stark naked is a little bit daunting to say the least but once you have gotten over the initial fear, it actually feels quite liberating! Upon the wall was a striking painting of Mt. Fuji and there were a variety of different baths to try out. My personal favorite, and something quite unique to Ota City, was the kuro-yu, natural black hot spring water that is said to be extremely good for your skin.
I also enjoyed the main baths where you can sit and either watch the television up on the wall or eavesdrop on people’s conversations-or if you don’t understand Japanese just enjoy the atmosphere it creates. You may think that a television in a Sento is a little out of place but I like how it represents the Sento as a hub for people in the community as well as place to relax whilst catching up on the news.
Next was a trip to a Sento that preserves even more of the traditional charm of Sento than the first, Shigeno-yu. Shigeno-yu is well known for its traditional Japanese wooden exterior and true to what I had heard it was certainly the kind of space that’s charm makes you want to take a photograph outside. Similar to Kugahara-yu, Shigeno-yu also had the curtains hanging above the door outside but this time men and women were split straight from the entrance with a separate door for both. The inside was compact and the front desk was a small box between the men’s and women’s changing rooms with a window on both sides. Because it was Sento Day they had a raffle event for all visitors and I won a huge bag of rice!
Shigeno-yu has a variety of different baths of different temperatures so it was great fun trying them all out. There was one shaped to your both shape that you could lie down in and rest your head. It was also fragranced with lavender and if it was a little cooler than the average 42 degrees I could probably have fallen asleep there. I also challenged myself with the hotter baths but at 45 degrees I could only stand about 5 minutes before turning into a lobster and having to get out and cool down. Even after getting out and going home I continued to sweat.
Finally, I went to a nearby traditional sweets cafe to have some anmitsu, a bowl of cubed agar jelly topped with anko (red bean paste), ice cream and fruits. It really felt like you had stepped back in time and were being served something that a child might have been made by their grandmother in another era but that was exactly the charm of the place.
In a sense, visiting Ota City’s Sento makes you feel as if you have stepped back in time but it also gives you an experience of the true traditions of Japanese public bathing- much more than a trip to a luxury Onsen does. Sento have a number of appealing aspects such as the tiling and pictures on the walls, the small lockers for your shoes as you walk in, the fridges lined with cold milk and the curtains hanging above the entrance with the characteristic yu character written on them. However, the most charming thing I found about the Sento was the sense of community that it represents and the insight it gives you into what role public bathhouses have in people’s daily lives today.
If you are looking for a true experience of the Japanese bathhouse then you have got to visit Sento!
Ota City CIR (Coordinator for International Relations)