The Japanese bathhouse, or sento, has seen its heyday. Modern Japanese residences have in-house bathing facilities, and many families and individuals prefer the privacy of single-occupancy bathrooms than the communal nakedness of public hygiene facilities. This lack of skinship (Hadaka no tsukiai, lit. â€œnaked relationshipâ€) may lead to the decline of social development, especially among the young, as lamented by the older members of Japanese society. There are still a number of bathhouses operating across Japan, so if you want to experience this piece of culture, then soap up, rinse down, and soak in this article.
The sento originated from temple bathhouses, which require residents to purify themselves before participating in ceremonies by means of bathing. These religious bathing areas soon became accessible to the nobility and well-to-do in Japanese society, followed suit by the masses. The sentoâ€™s popularity revived right after World War II, when the public went back to public bathing due to economic hardships.
A traditional sento operates much like an onsen (hot springs) except it uses tap water instead of mineralized water. Bathhouses have temple-like entranceways (which recall their religious origins) with curtains proclaiming the kanji yu, or hot water. Customers first remove their shoes upon entering, then receive a small towel from the attendant before walking into the changing room (datsuiba). They proceed to remove all their belongings and clothes and storing them in the lockers provided, bringing only their towel, soap, and shampoo inside the wash area. A sliding door separates the datsuibafrom the bathing area. Another attendant, usually female, sits between the entrances on a bandai, a rectangular or horseshoe-shaped elevated platform that is fitted with a railing. Besides the bathing area is a wall installed with a row of shower heads and knobs for hot and cold water, as well as stools and buckets for the benefit of patrons. Local businesses usually advertise in these places, and are gender-specific for each side of the dividing wall. Well-equipped bathhouses often provide massage chairs, and drink vending machines. The far end of the room usually portrays a scenic image, like a Japanese landscape, or Mt. Fuji.
The large bath (yokujyo) lies in the middle of one large room, which separates the sexes by means of a tall barrier. It is highly discouraged to soak into the bath without washing up first and rinsing off the soap suds; operators are known to empty and refill the large tub if someone breaks this taboo, creating delays and discomfort for everyone. Use the small towel provided to scrub your body with soap. You may also shave your face and brush your teeth at the wash area. After a thorough soaping and rinsing, you may now soak pleasantly in the yokujyo. You may place the small towel on your head to prevent it from submerging in the water with you. After a satisfactory soak, wipe your body with the towel before going back to the datsuiba. The entire ritual usually takes an hour. The bandai keeps watch on both sides of the barrier to make sure people follow the house rules and prevent any voyeurism from occurring.
Nowadays, the remaining sento owners fight for survival by innovating their establishments. Some operators provide super-sentos, which very much resembles a spa (except it uses tap water). These bath mansions may include a variety of sauna and jacuzzis, and provide extra services like massages, medical baths, and fitness centers. Spa LaQua at the Tokyo Dome City complex is one such facility, providing families one more reason to visit the sports arena and amusement park.
Foreigners who have qualms about visiting a sento shouldnâ€™t fear about racial discrimination, which is virtually unheard of in these Japanese bathhouses. Some sentos may turn away customers who sport tattoos, which may originate from Yakuza (Japanese gangsters) who cause trouble in these establishments. The only remaining fear is the idea of being naked in front of strangers, a concern which turns away even the younger generation of Japanese. For the older generation, however, itâ€™s not only nothing to be worried about, but the concept of hadaka no tsukiai means that once you bathe with someone, youâ€™re immediately buddies.