In a time when most Japanese people have baths in their own homes, why would they bother to go to a sento, a public bath? Because at a sento, bathing becomes a ritual of relaxation.
Sento are different from onsen (hot springs) which are usually found in resort areas and are fed from underground mineral springs. Unlike onsen, sento can be found in any community, even in a big city like Tokyo.
In the old days every neighborhood had its own public bath. There are fewer sento now, but you can still find them in traditional corners of most cities. If you're lucky, the sento you visit will be one of old style ones with an elaborate curved roof that looks more like it belongs on a temple or castle than a public bath. Most likely, there will be a curtain hanging at the door with “yu,” the Japanese word for bath, written on it. Pass through the curtain and into the world of the bath.
In the entryway there will be lockers for your shoes and then separate entrances for the men's and women's baths. A friendly old lady at the counter will take your money (about 400-500 yen) and give you a key for your clothes locker. If you forget to bring your own soap, shampoo, or towel, she will also sell you these for a modest price. If you have tattoos, be aware that some sento will not allow tattoos as they are associated with Japanese yakuza gangs.
Once you've entered the sento, it's time to show off your knowledge of sento etiquette. The most important thing is to wash yourself first, then enter the tub. In Japan, the bath is for soaking and relaxing in, not for washing. All along the tiled walls of the bathing area, you will see faucets and handheld showers. Most likely there will be low plastic stools and small tubs or buckets in front of them. Find a stool, sit down, and scrub and rinse yourself thoroughly. When you have washed away every speck of soap, you are ready to ease yourself into one of the large tubs of steaming water.
Sento tend to be peaceful, almost meditative places, each guest enjoying his or her time in the tub. You may find that you slip into a meditative trance as you watch the clouds of steam rise from the tub to wreath the mural of Mount Fuji on the tiled wall above you.
After your soak, you will feel refreshed and cleaner than you've ever felt before. On your way out, perhaps purchase an ice cream or cold drink from the sento's vending machine and say good night to the friendly lady at the counter. When you step outside, the air will feel cooler. You might notice the sound of a furin (wind chimes) and perhaps the cicadas humming in the dusk. Ahh. Summer in Japan.
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