-My story with sento
-What is sento
-The different types of sento
-The charms of the sento (community, art, health and beauty)
-The sento nowadays
I will do my best to talk about the amazing culture of the sento, also known as Japanese bath houses.
To start off, I would like to give a few words to introduce myself:
Originally born in the south of France, I first moved to Japan in 2008 as an exchange student at Rikkyo University. I mainly studied Japanese literature and sociology.
After spending a year in Japan, I went back to France to do my master’s degree.
After having the opportunity to work in East Africa – namely the republic of Djibouti – for 2 years, I moved to Japan again in 2012 after a Japanese company offered me a job.
My story with sento
The first time I experienced sento was during my exchange in 2008. At that time, I couldn’t speak Japanese fluently, however I went with a friend and the owner turned out to be very friendly and welcoming.
At first, I was a bit shy to be naked in front of everyone, but after a couple of minutes, I realized nobody cared. It felt amazingly comfortable.
I liked it so much that I went back week after week throughout my stay.
When I later returned to Japan in 2012, I started working for a Japanese company which turned out to be very hard.I was fluent in the language, yet the pressure of that first week made me wonder if I would be able to stay. Then I remembered my previous experience at the sento, and after deciding to try it again, I instantly felt that that was my place.
Soon after, I realized that -surely, by a stroke of luck- I had just moved next to the very first sento I ever visited. The first thing I did was to pay a visit to the owner who, to my surprise, hadn’t forgotten about me even after all these years! It made me so happy. I ended up befriending the owner as well as his family and through them I got the chance to learn a lot about sento culture and history.
I now had a new daily routine where I would go to work and follow it up with a visit to the sento, spending an hour in the bath and another two hours at the front desk chatting or having a drink with the owner and the other sento goers. It had become my second home.
As I quickly got more and more interested in the world of sento, I started visiting different locations and noticed that each and every one of them was unique in its own way. Each sento told a different story; whether it was the history of the place or the family owning it.
The more my passion for sento grew, the sadder I felt knowing that this practice was on the decline. I wondered: “How could such a precious aspect of Japan be forgotten?”
From then on, whenever I visited a sento I decided to post about it on social media so I could introduce it to other people. And, since I also wanted to reach readers outside of Japan, I shared the information in French, English and Japanese.
After visiting hundreds of sento, I kept falling in love with them again and again.
In 2014 I even became a member of the bathhouse committee for the city of Tokyo;
the following year in 2015 I was elected the first ever “sento ambassador”.
At that time I was working in marketing and PR for a cosmetics company. Meanwhile after work and on the weekends, I was a “sento journalist”.
I found a deeper meaning when working on sento-related content than working at that company so I eventually quit in 2016 to focus on introducing sento and organising events.
In 2017 I decided to compile my feelings about sento by publishing my first book, titled: 銭湯は、小さな美術館 or Sentos: Small Museums in which I introduced 80 different bathhouses across Japan. The following year I published a second one and now I am about to publish my first book – this time in French – about the art of the bathhouse.
What is sento ?
A sento (銭湯) is a public bathhouse most often run by a family with the customs passed down through generations.
The word ‘sento’ first appeared in 1401 (fourteen-o-one). It is made up of two kanji; the first one, ‘sen’ which referred to the money unit. The second kanji, ‘yu’ simply means hot water. So, essentially, you had to pay 1 ‘sen’ to bathe (during the Sengoku era).
The price to enter a bathhouse in Tokyo then was around 200 yen or about 1,5 US dollars whereas today it costs 470 yen or about 4 US dollars.
As for the price of a visit to the sento, it is agreed upon by prefecture. For example: in Tokyo you would pay 470 yen, for Kyoto 430, Niigata 420 etc.
Sento flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868), Edo people were apparently very careful regarding their body cleanliness and were also rather coquettish.
You may have heard of the term “furoshiki” or traditional Japanese wrapping cloth, which are used to wrap up gifts or bento boxes for example, although at that time people used it to bring clean clothes and bath belongings inside.
Now, it’s not unusual for the 3rd or 4th generation of a family to run the same bathhouse.
I even visited a 200 year old sento that was run by the 10th generation of descendants!
Regarding the water temperature
Historically, Tokyo has had the reputation to keep a high bath water temperature.
The reason being that during the Edo era, many people would visit the sento on a daily basis. Since there was no water filtration system, the bathers had to add cold water to the hot bath to make it more bearable. In return the water would overflow, “filtering out” some of it in the process.
Another possible explanation is that a very hot bath prevented customers from staying in the bath too long so that others could enjoy it too.
These days the average bath temperature is kept at around 42 degrees Celsius/107,6 Fahrenheit. At first, some may need a moment to get accustomed, but after soaking for a bit, it becomes quite pleasant. A few sento use extremely hot water at around 46 degrees but it is not common. On the other hand, many other locations use lukewarm and cold water as well.
The different between sento and onsen
I get asked a lot about the difference between sento and onsen. While onsen is a well-known term among foreigners, sento is still not commonly known outside Japan.
“Onsen” refers to thermal or mineral water – essentially a hot spring, whether it is of volcanic or geothermal origin whereas sento refers to a public bathhouse.
Since most of the sento draw water from deep below ground, in that sense, some sento can qualify as onsen too. It is said that almost anywhere in Japan an onsen can be found.
If you visit a sento in a popular hot spring resort such as Oita or Kagoshima in Kyushu, all the bathhouses would be onsen.
I once visited a sento in Oita city where the old lady running the place confided in me that the water had to be drawn from 750 meters underground for it to be the perfect temperature. Less depth would make the water too hot and require adding cold water to it; however, sento owners won’t mix pure mineral water with tap water as to maintain the benefits said to happen to people’s health and skin.
In Tokyo, you can find around 45 of the “onsen sento”, and many bath houses with an outdoor bathtub. Onsen water is not necessarily hot, in that case it is called “reisen” or cold mineral spring.
The different types of sento
There are several types of sento to be found, which I often sort into 3 unofficial categories:
- The Old-Fashioned Sento: a retro bath house that instantly brings about sweet, nostalgic feelings. Those sento often seem to be stuck in time – in a good way. You may often chance upon a beautiful mural depicting Mount Fuji or similar local views selected by the owners or previous generations.
Old-fashioned sento are typically decorated with a multitude of artifacts, such as antique hair dryers; old posters; etc. I would personally like for those sento to be preserved forever as jewels of Japanese architecture.
- Then, The Modernized Sento: They were generally renovated in the 80s or 90s and thus tend to display themes reminiscent of those decades, such as European landscaping or art that would have been trendy then. There, you may find fancy or over-the-top designs no one would expect to find in a Japanese bath house.
- Finally, The ‘Designer Sento’: Those sento exhibit an all around contemporary design or theme and are commonly refurbished by an architect. While some may be European-inspired, others appear classy – elegant even – and characterise a modern Japanese aesthetic.
The charms of the sento (community, art, health and beauty)
Although most Japanese homes now have fully equipped bathrooms with a bath and shower, a visit to a sento is appealing in its own way.
Since there are many aspects to sento that keep me wanting to explore, I like to group those into three main categories:
- Health and beauty
Health and Beauty
Besides offering a place to wash the body, the sento is a place to feel rejuvenated, for both the body and the mind.
I will let Hayasaka sensei explain in detail how it can benefit your health, although in my personal experience, I must admit that since embarking on this sento journey I have been less prone to catching colds – and if I do, I tend to make a swift recovery. Keeping in mind the « restoration » of the body, adding a series of stretches in the bath or afterwards might help making the body more flexible and even improve the quality of sleep.
As for the cleansing of the mind, on top of the deep relaxation being at the sento ,is a moment of focus and care of your body without any outside distraction – no social media, no text messages, no work, it’s like being in your own bubble.
The calming sounds of water flowing, tiles resonating, bubbles flying, voices muted by the steam, all these make for an ideal meditative state.
On a bad working day, or after an argument with my husband or other negative feelings, a trip to the sento would help lift these heavy thoughts off my shoulders, making me feel lighter.
For four years now, I have also been working at the front desk of a sento twice a week where I have observed these positive effects on other bath-goers. Being the person welcoming customers, I can see firsthand how their complexion appears lighter; their skin brighter; and of course they greet me with a sincere smile upon leaving.
On top of that, this traditional form of communal bathing has, in my opinion, a positive impact on the development of a healthy body image for young people. Inside the sento, most people keep a benevolent gaze upon others – there is no judgement nor body comparison and most of all, you will be among a diversity of real bodies. It feels like such a breath of fresh air compared to the constant display of unrealistic bodies that can be seen in the media or on social media. Sento may not only help put aside one’s insecurities, it may help accepting one’s appearance, little by little. I believe this need for reassurance is very important regardless of people’s age.
For example, a young woman visiting the sento will be able to feel more comfortable in her own body as she realises that the other women around her all have their own imperfections, and that’s ok – despite their unique bodies, they all belong. In the bath, there is no more place for shame: this young woman should feel accepted and the more she repeats the experience, the faster she should be able to come to terms with her body image.
For me, sento is a kind reminder that we all need to let go of the pressure that comes with the perfection of the social media world.
In brief, this comforting feeling not only comes from the baths but from the people as well.
Sento is an amazing community where you feel “at home”.
I believe the sento is one of the best places here in Japan to meet the locals and share some valuable time with them. There are many ways to enjoy a visit at the sento, whether you’re looking for a human connection (most of my own professional network around Japan is the result of me simply interacting with other bath-goers!); or maybe you’d rather silently connect with the people surrounding you by enjoying a bit of peace and quiet in the bath.
In practice – especially for first-goers – I would recommend a simple “konnichiwa” upon entering the room; it will attract friendly smiles and people will kindly help you if you seem lost.
When visiting a new city in Japan, I always take advantage of the community aspect of a sento by asking regular customers or owners for some advice regarding interesting places to see, things to do, their favourite restaurant in the area, etc. There is no better guide book or website than the information I can hear in the bath!!
The role of a sento is critical for the neighborhood. Among the daily bathers, many are living alone; others are elderly… but the customers will be eager to help a person in need of assistance. If a regular customer didn’t show up one day, the rest would check-in to make sure they are alright.
A friend of mine (a 4th generation sento owner) will call his older or fragile customers during the hot summer days. He will also try his best to help people in need that may not know where to ask for help so he can provide them with a solution.
The role of sento goes beyond “basic” bathing services and I feel that this crucial function is often underestimated.
To close up on the community topic, I would like to use the expression “hadaka no tsukiai” in Japanese. It literally means “naked socialization” but translates as “completely honest relationship”. It reflects on the simple fact of sharing time with one another while naked. It means: come as you are, as long as you show respect to others (especially to the elderly); in here, there is no social distinction: no rich nor poor; no boss versus employee. In the bath we all share the same value.
For the last part of my talk about the charms of sento, let me introduce another treasure of sento: their art. Indeed, the sento is a place to bathe ( pronunciation beythe), relax, share and also… enjoy art !
From the architecture of the building, through the potential garden, to the tiny tiles leading into the bath… the sento has a multitude of design and art aspects.
You can still find traditional “miyazukuri” buildings, mainly in the Kanto area surrounding Tokyo. “Miyazukuri” are constructions built in the same way temples and shrines are: with an all-wood structure; very high ceilings (approximately 8 meters) that let the steam rise.
The similarity between these different types of constructions is related to a belief that grew after the “Great Kanto Earthquake” in the 1920s (nineteen twenties). Temples and shrines being a symbol of peace and serenity, people thought that having the same symbolic constructions would relieve the hearts of the visitors.
Some of those buildings are registered as “Cultural Property” of Japan(文化財, bunkazai). The interior of a sento often hides wonderful pieces of art, such as paintings, tile art or mosaics.
As expected, the representation of Mount Fuji is very popular among the traditional sento. Also called “penki-e”, this is an amazing rendition that only three painters in Japan continue to depict/illustrate. They are respectively: Mr. Kiyoto Maruyama, Mr. Morio Nakajima and Ms. Mizuki Tanaka.
The completion of a full mural typically takes a day, which needs to be scheduled on a closed day. Due to the humidity, a mural has to be painted again every 1 to 3 years.
Other than Mount Fuji you can enjoy various sceneries, in particular depictions of the area. For instance, inside a Kagoshima sento (at the extreme south of Kyushu) you won’t find Mount Fuji but Sakurajima, the region’s notorious volcano.
In Niigata, I have seen beautiful mosaics inspired by the traditional dance of Sado Island, which is located in the same prefecture. Exploring sento across Japan is also a way to spice up any trip by discovering new places.
In other sento you may find replicas of famous paintings from artists such as Magritte or Renoir, typically covering the tiles.
Somewhere else, you may appreciate sceneries from overseas, such as dreamy castles in Switzerland or even Hawaiian resorts… each sento interior has a different story to tell, you will always be surprised.
The sento nowadays
Sento numbers have been critically decreasing since the end of the 60s.
With each sento disappearing, a national treasure is lost; it’s the end of a story, the end of years of daily relationships. The primary reason for this decline is that the sento’s “hygiene purpose” became obsolete since most modern homes have fully functional bathrooms.
The good news is – as we learnt earlier in the talk – sento now has a new lifestyle function. Over the past few years, thanks to various events and media interventions on the topic of sento, people have rediscovered the existence of public bath houses, and I often meet newcomers that decided to give the bath community a try.
On top of that, I see more and more families enjoying sento together and I truly think that it plays a role in having good manners and education, not just for children but adults as well.
There is such a thing as a “sento etiquette” that isn’t meant to be strict but to remind people of some cultural common sense and the art of compromise among bathers.
I personally think that it is a good way to spend quality time together without any other screen distraction.
So far, I have introduced many people to sento; both Japanese and foreign and 100% have expressed wanting to renew the experience.
More recently (last 4-5 years), due to the positive feedback around sento, young people are considering working at a sento and sometimes even becoming a sento owner to keep the history of bathhouses alive. I think they are really courageous and thanks to them and all the people supporting the sento, the future looks brighter.
Sento culture is decreasing but certainly not dying! I really hope that all of you will get to try it out one day and bathe in one of them.
Sento is a wonderful part of the cultural heritage in Japan, which deserves to be known worldwide and I will continue to do my best to share the beauty of every sento.
Thank you so much for your attention !!
To watch the conference :
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