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My one and only Sento experience was in Tokyo. Sento is a community bathhouse in Japan, and it is very common for Japanese folks.
Travellers crave for Onsen, but Sento offers another perspective. As an analogy, Singaporeans enjoy authentic food at Hawker Centre but tourists go to foodcourt and restaurants. To understand the locals better, go to a Sento.
The first question many will ask, what is the difference between Onsen and Sento. The Japanese translations are 温泉 and 銭湯 respectively.
Read on and you might find Sento appealing too.
I could do a Sento everyday, if time permits 🙂
Long time ago, not every home has a shower facility, much less hot water. So Japanese go to bathhouses for a soak and relaxation.
Jakotsuyu 蛇骨湯 is in Asakusa (quite near to Sensoji Temple), there are at least 3 bathhouses within 20 minutes walk from my hostel. The bathhouse which I went was 95% Japanese patrons. I saw some Korean, Taiwanese and even a few Caucasians. I might be the only Singaporean. Non-Japanese might be curious about Sento, just like me.
What are the difference between Onsen and Sento?
Both requires you to go butt naked (no underwear).
You will sit on stools and scrub yourself clean before entering the water.
Both are normally segregated by gender.
Onsen usually use hot spring waters, but sentos normally use hot water.
Those bath scenes in Japan Hour where you have public pools offering panoramic views of Mountains, Sunsets, Sea or Snow are usually Onsens. Sentos are confined spaces, and we will likely see a huge mural of Mount Fuji 🙂
Onsen is more sensuous (read exclusive), while Sento is like you bathing with 30 others!
No swimming in the pool for both Onsen and Sento 🙂
Sento is very popular with Japanese, many will socialise with colleagues or neighbours during their baths, or simply scrub or wash away office fatigues before heading home.
Did I mention Sento entrance fee is ¥460 (Yen), which is only SGD 5.50!
Sento Experience and tips
After selecting your Sento package at the vending machine, keep your shoes and approach the counter. You can rent a towel.
No 1 tip is try to look like a local, and not appear too apprehensive. Japanese will still know you are non-local :p
-Head towards the male section, and you will see guys in various stages of stripping. Just chill and strip, try to ignore the 20 pairs of eyes who might be eyeballing you wahaha!
-Keep your belongings in a locker (free) and keep the key
–The first mistake I made was wearing my spectacles into the bath area!
My glasses immediately fog and everyone now know I am virgin Sento user (Silly me)
-(Step 1)Find a corner, sit on the stool and lather yourself with copious amount of shampoo or shower foam. Slowly rinse away the soap with a pail or scoop
-Onsen and Sento culture requires you to sit and wash, standing up would mean splashing water onto others (taboo!)
-Do Google for more Sento and Onsen etiquette
-Why my Sento water is brown in colour? Google told me this is natural mineral water colour, pumped from 1000m below
-Temperature of water can be hot, from 37 degrees to 42 degrees! Dip your toes before immersing whole body, no sulphur smell here.
-There are different pools to enjoy:
I loved the jacuzzi jets, soothing my sore muscle. I did not enjoy the tingling feel from the “electric” pool. YES, they ran a small current through the water eeeks! The electric pulses are supposed to improve our body health circulation, but my body says “No thanks”.
-Same as Onsen, first timers should step out of hot water after 15 minutes (just a guide). How long we can dip in hot (or cold) water is subjective, listen to your body.
-Photo above, the graphite pools are 17 degrees cooling pools. Alternate between Hot and Cold pools. You will feel your pores open and contract, feels like mini needles prickling but in a nice I-am-so-alive way (you will be SHIVERING as you step into the cold pool!)
-After getting out of the cold pool, let your body temperature stabilise first. Sit on long stools, face the fake waterfall feature. There are real kois in the pond, close your eyes and soak in the Japan Hour moment (try to forget you are still naked, no one is seeing )
-Repeat this Hot Cold cycles as many times as you like 🙂
I was in Jakotsuyu 蛇骨湯 for at least 1 hour, three cycles.
-Once you are done, repeat Step 1 and dry yourself.
-Buy a drink, Meiji milk recommended, and rest for a while. We need to replenish the loss fluids
-Blood circulation is still working hard. Do not return towel yet, as you will still perspire for a good 10 minutes
Before you book your Onsen and Sento session
Skin felt detox and so smooth. But I also felt lethargic as the Sento experience really relaxed my body and soul. I just wanted to enjoy a hot bowl of Ramen (Ippudo is just 2 mins away) and go to sleep straight away.
-Not sure where is the nearest Sento or Onsen, just Google. You will have better luck using “銭湯 or 温泉” instead of “Public bath”.
-Do Google and find whether the Sento or Onsen establishment welcomes tattoo (Some in Japanese society still associate tattoos with Yakuza)
-Just in case, ensure your shortlisted Sento is not Gay 🙂
(There are some outlets which cater for LGBT needs )
-My Sento at Jakotsuyu 蛇骨湯 (GPS 35.712036, 139.792607) is crowded, but I can do this Japan bath everyday!
-You should have some Onsen experience before heading to a Sento. It can be an overwhelming and unnerving experience with so many male (or female) genitals walking around (keep your head and eyes up). For the same reason, I would not recommend sento experience for families.
-Sento is normally split into male and female sections, the huge Mount Fuji center might be the demarcation line. It is popular for couples to shower separately, and meet afterwards.
Be it Onsen or Sento experience, I find both appealing and relaxing. However, Sento might not be suitable for everyone.
I found the Sento experience liberating.
I had wanted to try Sento because I was curious and you know, YOLO factor.
First-timers maybe go in a group to bolster your courage.
Learn how Japanese enjoy public bathhouses culture.
Chit chat with locals and enjoy the majestic Mount Fuji mural.
More photos of Jakotsuyu 蛇骨湯 from Google Map here.
Hope you will enjoy your Japanese Bathhouse Sento experience too 🙂
This is one of the queer and weird experiences during my last trip to Tokyo. You may read about my Mario Kart (MariCar) experience too.