The Sento Japanese Communal Bath: A big part of traditional Japan that is slowly fading

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.

1024px-Kiyonaga_bathhouse_women-2What 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

Funaoka Onsen

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 or call us on +1-415-230-0579.


An Old Interview with New York Golden Boy David Kidd (1927-1996)

David Kidd (1927-1996), who passed away on November 30, 1996, Year of the Rat, resided in Japan for over 40 years, some 20 of them in Kyoto. Besides founding the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts (located in Kameoka, just 15 miles west of Kyoto) he has also, at one time or another, been a contributor to The New Yorker, university language instructor, advertising copy writer, and antique dealer. Before settling in Japan, he lived in Peking from 1946 to 1950, and was witness to the Communist takeover of that city. His experiences during those years are related in his astonishingly timeless memoir, Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1988).

Interview from the early 1990s which first appeared in the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide.  Ian Ropke, founder and owner of Your Japan Private Tours, was the Editor-in-chief of KVG from 1994-2009.

YJPT: Had you intended to come to Japan all along, or was it the revolution in China that got you here?

DK: I originally planned to go to China for four years to become a scholar and then go back and teach and write serious books. When you’re young, you don’t know any better! First it was going to be China four years, Japan four years, and India four years. China was almost exactly four years, then I came to Japan and four years became eight, and by the time I got to India I realized my plan would never work. Two weeks in India wasn’t very good for me, and four years would have killed me! Anyway, I graduated from the University of Michigan when I was 19–I was in a big hurry–and received an exchange scholarship with Yenching University which was offered to me by the American  ambassador to China at that time, [Dr.] Leighton Stuart.

YJPT: Your book is dedicated to him, isn’t it?

DK: Yes, and quite rightly. If it weren’t for him . . . I used to read all those travel books about people going all around the world doing wonderful things but they never told you how they got there! My scholarship didn’t involve any money–it only allowed me to attend that university and have a place to stay–so I started teaching English immediately. When my students asked difficult questions about grammar, I told them they should have learned that in high school!

YJPT: We’ve heard there are plans to turn your memoir Peking Story into a movie.

DK: The movie rights have been sold again–for the fifth time. But this time to a real producer, so I think this might be it. The real question is: Who plays me? It’s important for the character to be taller than the average Chinese and blond. Several years ago I had considered my friend, David Bowie, but now he’s too old, I think. This Daniel Day Lewis just may be the one. Wasn’t he a blond in “My Beautiful Laundrette”?

YJPT: In your book you don’t really go into detail about how you actually left China.

DK: I had a section about that but my publisher thought it was better not to include it, because the last chapter was already complete in itself. I think we’ll probably put it into the movie though, along with a lot of other extra material. I’ve been working on a film script myself but can only make suggestions since the screenwriter will have his own ideas. But I think it’ll probably start with a flashback, with me standing in the ruins of Peking, something that was once beautiful, and saying, how did it get this way? Then it’ll go back, alas, forty years. I would like it to show a last, loving glimpse of old China. When I was first there, Peking was falling slowly into gorgeous ruin but was still intact. Old mansion families and princely homes, like the Yu mansion itself, were still there. The Yu mansion is the major character in the book, and what happens to it is its total destruction. I’m even now amazed that any culture could wipe itself out in a short 35 years.

YJPT: What else did you leave out of the book?

DK: Since I wasn’t in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, I could only describe the people I knew who had experienced it, without going into detail. I had to write the last chapter [describing his return to China in 1981] very carefully because if I wrote it the way I really felt about it, I would lose my reader. Mao hated the intellectuals because he thought they would undo everthing he had done. His whole purpose was to wipe them out. [During the Cultural Revolution] you only had three choices: you got killed, you committed suicide, or you turned off. When I went back I met a number of those who had just turned off their ability to suffer, to enjoy–anything.

YJPT: What did you do after you left China?

DK: I went to New York and taught the history of Chinese art at the old Asia Institute. One day two young Japanese arrived, one claiming to be the son of a famous tea master. He turned out to be the present Mr. Sen [Sen Soshitsu, famous internationally minded headmaster of the Urasenke School of Tea]. After performing a tea ceremony at the Institute–which was a great success–he invited me and Jay Gluck to Japan, and three months later we were on our way. Three typhoons and numerous stops later I finally arrived in Osaka on Christmas Eve, 1951. The city was absolutely flat, with just these funny little buildings dotting the blank landscape. I later discovered they were kura [storehouses] that hadn’t burned during the bombings. I spent a very cold winter in Kyoto living at Urasenke, and by summer I discovered I had a deadly case of T.B. The next year was spent in the old international hospital on Rokko where I first started writing stories for The New Yorker.

YJPT: Where did you finally settle?

DK: First to Wakayama, which was a mistake! Then I moved into a true palace in Ashiya [between Osaka and Kobe] which was originally built in Shikoku in 1867 as the great mansion of a sake-making family. It was later rebuilt in Ashiya in 1903. After fifteen years it somehow turned out that I owned the house but not the land. The owner told me to buy the land for $5 million or move the house. To his amazement I took the house and went. A couple of years ago I gave it to the University of Hawaii, and now we’re raising the $2 or $3 million it will take to ship it there and rebuild it on campus.

YJPT: And then you moved from Ashiya back to Kyoto?

DK: Yes. I had toyed with the idea of moving back to Kyoto anyway, since it really is the cultural center. More so at that time than now, as they continue to destroy it building by building. It’s very methodical, the extermination of old Kyoto. In former days, we looked out over Kyoto and saw gray roof tiles and green gardens. Today, all white; concrete, and not good concrete, either. Japanese architecture is so excessively expensive to maintain that I can understand why Japanese get out of these old houses as soon as they can. It’s only because I’m a fanatic that I keep this 60 year-old house going. China was destroyed by revolution, and now Japan–Kyoto in particular–is being destroyed by money.

YJPT: Tell us about the Oomoto School of Traditional Japanese Arts.

DK: I dreamed it up in a frenzy one night–a “Berlitz school” of Japanese culture–and founded it in 1976. I was the director for twelve years with my friend, Yasuyoshi Morimoto, as co-director. We not only taught foreigners about the traditional arts, but taught our Japanese staff how to teach them. The school was financed and continues to thrive under the direction of Oomoto-kyo [a religious organisation] whose followers believe that the practice of the arts is itself a spiritual practice. Their Kameoka center, built on the site of an old castle, has incredible facilities.

YJPT: How did you first get involved with Oomoto-kyo?

DK: I got to know them through strange circumstances. An acupuncturist named Dr. Mii brought my mother back from a stroke, which was the first miracle I had ever experienced. I asked him how he had done it, and he explained that he was an Oomoto-kyo follower. So that’s how I found Oomoto, and how Oomoto found me. It’s all very mysterious.

YJPT: Did you become a member of the religion?

DK: No, I could not have done that because, first of all, I never become a member of anything, and, second, it would have made me useless as the neutral party I had to be.

YJPT: Looking back over your life, do you regret that you didn’t pursue an academic career?

DK: Not in the least. When I came back from China, I visited the University of Washington in Seattle, where friends from Michigan were on post-graduate courses. They were all thrilled because I was the freshest thing right out of China. They offered me scholarships but it was too late, I had tasted the world. I couldn’t go back into those ivory towers and forget it all. However, I have enjoyed writing a number of scholarly articles, most of which have appeared in Oriental Arts, a London magazine.

Courtesy of Your Japan Private Tours (YJPT). Ian Ropke, founder and owner of YJPT (since 1992), is 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 or call us on +1-415-230-0579.