The Sento Japanese Communal Bath–A big part of traditional Japan that is slowly fading
The sento (Japanese traditional public bath) is a word with deep communal meanings in Japan. A place where people can be with people in the most natural of ways. A place to get super clean. A place to warm up in the dead of winter. A place to reconnect oneself with the old ways of the Japan and the spirit of the local community.
During the Edo era sento were perhaps the most popular community attraction as woodblock prints from that time clearly depict. In those days both women and men bathed together. It was only during the Meiji period with the arrival of strong Western influences and morals that the sexes began bathing separately. In pre-war Japan the sento was still pretty much where everyone went to wash, as baths were heated with wood, and very few people could boast of having their very own private bath. The arrival of gas lines in the 1950s changed things dramatically: suddenly people were able to have their own, easy to heat bath in the home. However, in the beginning, this was a luxury all the same, requiring considerable initial expense. But over the last twenty years nearly every Japanese home has acquired its own bathing facilities and the sentos have fallen dramatically in number. Changes in the attitudes of younger generations to traditional and inconvenient customs and practices have further eroded the customer base for sentos.
What has kept the local neighborhood sento alive and well is the fact that a fair number of homes in certain neighborhoods, often characterized by a high density of tight nagaya (row houses or townhouses) have no bath. Another factor that influences the survival and popularity of the sento is perhaps the age-old desire of people to be close to people. This is, of course, only true of those areas that still continue to foster a healthy, neighborly community spirit. And there are few. However, in cities like Osaka and Tokyo the public sento of old has all but disappeared. But larger cities and towns that survived the war and which still have extensive areas of machiya and other traditional wooden structures, there still exist a remarkable number of sentos and living community areas. Below are descriptions of 5 popular community sentos in Kyoto well worth visiting. Entry is ´ 290 (not including towel).
Don’t be surprised if people stare at you. Most patrons will assume that you’re not from the neighborhood for a number of reasons, and they’ll probably be right. Remember to behave respectfully, wash before bathing, and most importantly of all to relax and let the warmth soak into to your bones. If in doubt, do like those around you. You can hardly go wrong.
Recommended Sento in Kyoto
This sento is probably the oldest one in existence in Kyoto, dating from the late Edo period. The ceiling of the change rooms are high and made of fine wood. Of particular interest are a number exquisite, almost baroque ranma (Japanese wood carving panels) which partition the change room. Open daily 15:00 – 1:00. Located directly south of Daitoku-ji Temple. Tel: 441-3735.
This sento is entirely modern and thus quite the experience. Three stories high, bathers change on the first floor and then ascend, by elevator, to the second floor where there are several large baths including a big whirlpool. There is also a large sauna on the 3rd floor, more pools and the added luxury of a wooden, outdoor hot tub. Open 16:00 – 11:30 pm, closed Tuesdays. Tel: 561-3232.
This sento, located a little south of the Sanjo shopping arcade, is one of the few sentos that is open in the morning. Here you can see business people from local shops, sometimes for hours at time, relaxing, chatting and, of course bathing. This is a large sento with several big pools, a separate cold bath and shower set up, whirlpool, and steam bath (a sauna is located next door to the entrance to Sakura-yu). Located between the Teramachi and Shinkyogoku arcades three streets south of Sanjo. Open 9:00 – 23:00. Closed Fridays. Tel: 221-4062.
Located 50 meters southwest of the entrance to the Kurodani Temple zen complex (a wonderful place any time of day, especially around sunset when the monks file into the meditation chamber and to begin their daily 30 min. chant), Tokiwa-yu is one of several sentos remaining in the Okazaki area (where the high number of old, tiny houses, many without bath, makes the local sento indispensable). Open 16:00 – 11:30 pm, closed Wednesdays. Tel: 771-5035.
This sento is a fine example of a war period community sento: wooden floors, the patina of time and good use. Hot pools & cold. Steam bath too! Located 20 meters south of Kitaoji two streets east of the Kamogawa Kitaoji Bridge (east of Kitaoji Station). Open 16:00 – 11:30. Tel: 701-1739.
Written by Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT, since 1992), a Japan destination expert for travel and tourism. He specializes in private travel (customized day trips with guides / private guided tours) and digital guidance solutions (about 25% of our business and growing!). Ian and his team offer personalized quality private travel services all over Japan. To learn more, visit www.kyoto-tokyo-private-tours.com or call us on +1-415-230-0579.