of Japanese Sentos
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
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!
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
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
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.
for the Heavenly Shower
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
an Onsen then?
, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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...