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Japanese Sentos and Onsens:
A User's Guide
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The rituals of Japanese Sentos

It's been well over a year now since my first trip to a sento, but I can still recall the traumatic experience. At the time I was completely ignorant of the few simple but vitally important rules that one should obey when within the walls of these steamy places. Using some rare photographs taken inside a sento (cameras are strictly not permitted for obvious reasons - this particular sento however was on board a very quiet ship), I shall guide you through the Sento Experience.

What is a sento and what should I do there?

A sento is a basically a public bathroom. It is important to make sure that you are using the correct entrance as they are always segregated (men/women). The first room is of course the changing room which will often be equipped with hair dryers, shaving points, weighing scales and perhaps electronic massage chairs. You should also find a load of old Manga comics. Undress completely - you should have a small towel with you for scrubbing yourself clean - if you're feeling modest you can hide your bits with it!

Leaving the changing room you will go into the main tiled bathroom. There you will find lots of little plastic stools and bowls, in front of a row of taps, shower heads, soap and shampoo (as pictured right). Pick a place, and scrub yourself from head to foot. If there are children in there they will no doubt stare at you as in some parts of Japan to see a gaijin (foreigner) is quite a novelty, let alone a completely naked gaijin! Before moving from your seat make sure that you have rinsed off all the soap, as contaminating the big bath with it is one of the greatest sins!

My first sento experience was in Hokkaido, in a remote community centre. I had no idea that I was supposed to wash myself before getting in the tub and was quite bemused when the five Sumo-sized men who were soaking sprang up the moment my skin touched the water. I remember thinking "Gaijin aren't that different are they?"

There is usually one main tub and up to 8 others that all boast a particular feature. They will be about 75cm deep and full of really hot water (about 40°C). They vary in size and number depending on the individual sento. For example, my local sento in Tokyo has one big bath which can happily fit about 10 people, and another small jacuzzi bath which is very very hot and can only fit 2. The photo shows a typical bath; this one had a fountain too to add a touch of class. Many sentos also have a sauna with a TV, radio and lots of hot people in.

When stepping into the tub it's important to disturb the water as little as possible. Belly flops are banned as they'll be plenty of old men (or women) with their noses close to the water who won't particulary want to take a snort.

The best Sento I went to was in Kyoto. It had eight baths: A "normal" bath, a very very hot bath, a freezing cold bath (positioned right by the Sauna), a salt bath, a jacuzzi, a whirlpool bath, an outdoor maple-wood bath and another which had chairs built into it with high pressure water jets shooting out the back to give you a vigorous massage. The outdoor baths are the most popular in winter as it's great to feel boiling hot whilst being surrounded by snow.

The Quest for the Heavenly Shower

When travelling, I find a good way to rate accomodation is by trying out the showers. Japan, it must be said, does have excellent showers, but I think that I've found one of the best in the world - in my local 40-year-old sento. At first it confused me a bit as I couldn't understand why there were hot and cold taps on two walls. I'd just come out of the big hot tub and my head was absolutely baking hot, so I turned on the cold. The freezing water from the showerhead above rapidly cooled my body, but my head remained damn hot!. As the goosepimples struck so I decided to try out the other taps, and was shocked when hot water shot out of what I'd thought were six old hooks that were positioned at regular intervals down the two side walls. What a fantastic idea! The six nozzles keep your body warm from the sides whilst the other showerhead cools your skull! I tell you, when I get a house it'ill have one of those showers in!

So what's an Onsen then?

Basically , onsens (hot springs) are there for relaxation as opposed to washing. The water is always the naturally heated volcanic variety, and therefore often pretty milky coloured and quite smelly. However, it's really good for the skin and mind.

There are hundreds of onsens in Japan, most of which have been commercialised and turned into fashionable complexes for city folk to escape to at weekends. That's not to say that they're all like that. These photos for example were taken in the middle of a national park on the northern island of Hokkaido. It was simply a case of parking the car, stripping off and relaxing into the pool. No entrance fees, just a garden shed for a changing rooms and a 60cm deep stone-lined onsen. If anyone was feeling shy they could hide behind a big rock that was placed in the middle, but otherwise it was basically multi-sex.

Sento baths and onsens usually have a bench in them, submerged 10-30cm below the surface of the water around the edge of the pool. This enables you to cool off whilst keeping your bum warm.

We'd often visit this particular onsen (which was situated on the shoreline of a freezing cold lake) after drinking copious amounts of beer in our local family-run restaurant/party house. We'd get there at about 10pm and soak until about 2am. When getting out we had to be careful not to slip on the ice surrounding the onsen as the temperature often dropped to -10°C at night.

I absolutely love onsens and sentos. The feeling of freedom is just great, along with that of being "at one with nature". Also, the luxury of having endless hot baths without worrying about the cost to yourself or the environment makes a change!

If only we had a few more volcanoes in Europe...

© Joseph Tame 2000~2009 | Contact Joseph