Sento and Onsen – the Japanese bathing experience

Sento is literally a ‘coin bath’ in Japanese. Sentos are public bath houses where you pay to go in and take a bath. Some Japanese don’t have their own shower or bath at home, so sento are where people can come and do their daily showering.

sento entrance (Julia Baier)

I had the wonderful opportunity to try a sento. Right across from our guest house in Kyoto was a small sento. We had been walking all day and we thought this would be the perfect way to unwind. The sento was divided into men and women’s sections and we paid around ¥300-400 for the one we went into.

Honestly, I had no idea what I was supposed to do. All I knew was that I must wash completely before bathing in the actual baths. The man at the bath house spoke no English, so it was a little hard to figure each other out. I really had to mouth out to myself the cost that he had quoted me for admission. It wasn’t all that busy as far as I could tell. The man had a television running on the men’s side of the sento. He was watching the Japan Series, the Japanese baseball championships, between the Yoimuri Giants and the Nippon-Ham Fighters (mmm…Ham Fighters :P). Fortunately, there were a couple of other men who came in with me. So I just followed their lead. The men had their own towels and wash basins; whereas, I had to borrow from the bath house. Thankfully the towel, soap, and shampoo were all complimentary.

As I took my seat on a stool by one of the many faucets along the wall, I peeked out the side of my eyes to see what the other men were doing. They would fill up their wash basins with the gloriously warm water. It was a bit chilly tonight, so the warmth hit the spot. Both men had brought their toothbrushes and shaving kits. So they were brushing their teeth as they used their wash towels and wetted their naked bodies. They would then lather up their hands with shampoo and wash their hair. The body was next. So foreign me just followed their lead minus the brushing and shaving. The best part is when I fill up the wash basin with the warm water again and just pour the whole basin over my whole body.

After a thorough cleansing, I got into one of the two baths. The introduction at guest house had already warned that the baths are usually hotter than what foreigners are accustomed to. They weren’t kidding. Holy smokes! It was really hot. I had to really ease myself into the tub slowly. After the bath, my whole body felt warm and pulsating. I bought a bottle of milk, which is apparently one of the things to do after bathing in Japan. I thought it strange at first about drinking the milk, but it felt very refreshing to drink the milk.  When I walked back to the guest house, the wind just didn’t have the same chill anymore. I was warm all over and felt as bright as day.

We also went to an onsen when in Japan.  We went to Arima Onsen which is a popular resort town in the mountains north of Kobe.  We stayed at a luxurious onsen hotel.  What makes an onsen different is primarily its access to natural hot spring water.  Some onsens are run like sento, but the one we went to was a resort experience.  The hotel provided simple kimonos for us to wear while we stayed at the hotel.  So all the guests in the hotel would be dressed up in these kimonos wherever we went.  The women got to choose their pattern while the men all had the same pattern.

This particular onsen in Arima had several baths.  Two were public baths where you would meet other hotel guests.  One bath was for the men and the other for the women. These public bathing areas functioned pretty much like a sento with washing faucets lined up in one section and bathing sections next to them.  This particular onsen had two different kind of water in the baths.  One was Ginsen, or the silver bath.  This was a clear mineral bath and the description in Japanese suggested that it was a treatment for many ailments.  The other was Kinsen, or the gold bath.  This water was a silky gold/bronze colour and was almost opaque.  You could not see your hand once you put it underwater.  This bath was also good many ailments according to the description hanging on the wall. The onsen hotel also had private onsen where you and your partner, or group of friends, could bath together and chat in the comfort of the hot, hot water.

Hotel room private onsen tub

Our hotel room was very special.  The main room was the tatami room which is a sitting room during the day and then the sleeping room at night.  There was a room with a table with a blanket skirt under which you could stick your legs and keep them warm.  We also had our own private onsen tub out on the private deck attached to our room. When we arrived in the room, we were greeted with a plate of fresh fruit.  Later on, we had dinner in the restaurant and the meal was a 12-course extravaganza of Japanese cuisine.  This onsen hotel was more on the luxurious side, but it was worth the splurge for a once in a lifetime experience.  Who knows when I would be back in Japan again.

tatami room

So if you don’t mind bathing totally naked in front of complete strangers, I would highly recommend partaking in a sento or onsen. It was a glorious feeling to bathe in the hot, hot waters and I felt more connected to Japanese culture by just experiencing it.  Understandably, some people take issue with being naked around others and seeing others naked, so I guess it’s not for everyone.  I’m Asian so it’s not really apparent to the locals that I’m not Japanese at first.  I guess some non-Asians may find it uncomfortable.    Again, I highly recommend trying a sento or an onsen when in Japan.

Further reading:

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6 comments

  1. I went to some sentos at Tokyo, Kyoto and Shirahama back in 2007, mostly at night, and I must say it was a perfectly relaxing and japanese experience. Walking back to the guest house in a cold spring night was a sublime experience that I definitely wanna/gonna repeat next spring!

    1. I went on a cold autumn night in Kyoto. The feeling of coming out into the cold after being in a sento is wonderful, isn’t it? I had the same feeling after my experience.

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