Translated by MATCHA_En
10 Manners You Must Know To Properly Enjoy Sento (Public Baths)
Written by Kazuyuki Sato
Want to visit a sento, or public bath, in Japan, but aren't sure just what to do? Read this article, and you'll be a sento master in no time!
Sento, or Japanese public bath houses, are one major cultural custom with historical downtown roots. Some sento are well known as registered tangible cultural properties today, but sento, which originally were for those who did not have a bath in their residence, have been decreasing in number yearly as most Japanese residences now have baths.
To protect the long-lasting and communal nature of sento culture, users must follow some standard rules and have good manners so that everyone can enjoy their time in the bath. With the cooperation of Inari-yu, which is a “holy ground” for Imperial Palace course runners, let’s check out some of the rules to follow in order to best enjoy sento.
Rule #1: Take Your Shoes Off
You can’t enter a sento with your shoes on. Put your shoes in the shoes cabinet at the entrance, close the door and pull out the numbered wooden card to lock. There are many variations of these locks, but they are called shou-chiku locks (pine and bamboo locks; lucky motifs used commonly in Japan) in general. They're quite appealing cabinets, in the author's opinion.
After you store your shoes, there is a reception desk. You pay your entrance fee here and the bath house is separated by gender from here onward, into a men's section, and a women's section. Some sentos sell soft drinks in this reception area and people often rest here after taking a bath.
Entrance fees can only be paid by cash. The owner says it is better if you put the money on the desk, because it is easier to count the money and hand back change. The entrance fee differs by prefecture; in Tokyo, it is 450 yen (adult).
Most sentos sell towels and mini-shampoos at the reception as well, so you can come empty handed to the sento, or if you have forgotten something, you needn't worry.
Rule #2: Don’t Force Your Stuff In
Go forward from the reception to the changing rooms. Here you take your clothes off and put them in the locker.
The lockers aren't that big, but you should try not to shove your belongings all in, as the locker might break. If you have a lot of luggage with you, or if your bag is simply too big for the locker, just secure your valuables (wallets, cell-phones, the wooden card for your shoes, etc.) in the locker and put other stuff in the corner of the changing room.
Rule #3: Take All Your Clothes Off
Sento are different from a jacuzzi or swimming pool. You are entering a bath, so you are expected to go inside the space completely naked. There are no shampoos, body soaps, or washcloths provided inside a sento, so if you are wanting to get clean, you will need to bring your own.
Rule #4: Wash Before The Bathtub
Many runners use Inari-yu because, after going for a long run, you will surely want to soak your tired body in the big bath as soon as possible. But other users may feel unpleasant with that not-so-clean body coming into the bath. So not only in sentos but for public baths and hot springs in general, you must wash your body first.
You will notice on your first visit to a sento that there are no bath chairs or bath pails at each shower. They are piled near the bath entrance, so pick one up when you are using the shower, and put it back when you’re finished.
Rule #5: Don’t Leave the Water Running
In each space where you can wash your body, there is a faucet, a mirror and a shower. There is a red faucet for hot water and blue faucet for cold water. Most of the time hot water is TOO hot, so you can mix it with cold water or leave it to cool down in your pail.
Just be careful to not leave it running. Usually in showers at home, you will leave the water running while you clean up, but in a sento, you must wet your body and fill up your bucket, then turn off the water and lather up, then use the water in your bucket to rinse off. Make sure to rinse all the soap suds away. It's also inconsiderate to leave your faucet running, because the water might splash on somebody else or cause someone to slip.
Manner #6: Don’t Do Your Laundry in the Bath
Another thing other users will definitely be bothered by: don't hand wash your clothing in the shower or bath. Many sentos have a washing machine or coin laundry space nearby, so it’s better to use those facilities instead.
Manner #7: Your Towel Cannot Touch the Bath
Don’t soak your washcloth or towel in the bath. There are many reasons for this being a rule, but the major reason is sanitation. However, folding your towel and putting it on the top of your head is OK (commonly seen in animes and TV dramas).
Manner #8: Don’t Run in the Bath Area
A typical sento will have tiled floors which are well drained but very slippery. With the non-ordinariness and open atmosphere of a sento, some kids run around like they often do at pools overseas. If you see kids doing this, you might want to let them know that it’s very dangerous.
Manner #9: Dry Yourself Before Going Back to the Changing Room
You’ve finished your bath and you want to go back to change - but wait! You've just gotten out of the bath, so you're probably soaking wet, which will cause puddles to form on the changing room floor if don't dry off first. In order to avoid this, make sure to dry yourself thoroughly and wring out your towel or washcloth well before heading back into the changing room. This might be the most important reason why you need to bring your own towel.
Manner #10: No Cell Phones or PC Use in the Changing Room
Many people are changing in the changing room, so using your cell phone, tablet, smartphone, PC or any recording device is prohibited. Even if you are just innocently checking your social media, you don't want to be suspected of taking photos, do you?
Some people might think that these rules are just common sense, others might find them a bit strict, but they have been the guidelines associated with a sento for generations. They are as natural to a sento as dipping sushi in soy sauce, and are followed by people of all ages and status. In order to keep sento culture alive and make the experience a positive one for all visitors, these rules are key.
Although this article mainly focuses on the Tokyo area, there are other ways to enjoy sento more than “just bathing”. The Tokyo Sento Association has a page dedicated to special sento events, where you can learn more about specal events or baths in various areas.
Furo rock/Benten-yu (Japanese) is a bath thatis also sometimes used as a live house, and at Showa Sento (Japanese) you can see a professional magician called Tajimagic preform. There are even doujin magazines of sento. Maybe Sento culture has entered a new era.