Sentō (銭湯) is a type of Japanese communal bath house where
customers pay for entrance. Traditionally these bath houses have been
quite utilitarian, with a tall barrier separating the sexes within one
large room, a minimum of lined up faucets on both sides and a single
large bath for the already washed bathers to sit in among others.
Since the second half of the 20th century, these communal bath houses
have been decreasing in numbers as more and more Japanese residences
now have baths. Some Japanese find social importance in going to
public baths, out of the theory that physical proximity/intimacy
brings emotional intimacy, which is termed skinship in pseudo-English
Japanese. Others go to a sentō because they live in a small housing
facility without a private bath or to enjoy bathing in a spacious room
and to relax in saunas or jet baths that often accompany new or
Another type of Japanese public bath is onsen, which uses hot water
from a natural hot spring. In general the word onsen means that the
bathing facility has at least one bath filled with natural hot spring
water. However throughout the
Kansai region of
Japan the word "onsen"
is also a commonly used naming scheme for sentō.
Kansai that do have access to a hot spring well often
differentiate themselves by having "natural hot spring" (天然温泉)
somewhere on their signage.
1 Layout and architectural features
1.1 Entrance area
1.2 Changing room
1.3 Bathing area
1.4 Boiler room
2.2 Entrance and undressing
2.3 Bathing area
3 Social and cultural aspects
Nara period to Kamakura period
6.2 Kamakura period
6.3 Edo period
6.4 Meiji period
6.6 Golden era
7 See also
9 Further reading
10 External links
Layout and architectural features
General Layout of a Sentō
There are many different looks for a Japanese sentō, or public bath.
Most traditional sentō, however, are very similar to the layout shown
on the right. The entrance from the outside looks somewhat similar to
a temple, with a Japanese curtain (暖簾, noren) across the entrance.
The curtain is usually blue and shows the kanji 湯 (yu, lit. hot
water) or the corresponding hiragana ゆ. After the entrance there is
an area with shoe lockers, followed by two long curtains or door, one
on each side. These lead to the datsuijo (脱衣場, changing room),
also known as datsuiba for the men and women respectively. The men's
and the women's side are very similar and differ only slightly.
Bandai in the Edo
Tokyo Open Air Museum
A public bathing facility in
Japan typically has one of two kinds of
entrances. One is the front desk variety, where a person in charge
sits at a front desk, abbreviated as "front." The other entrance
variety is the bandai style. In Tokyo, 660 sentō facilities have a
"front"-type entrance, while only 315 still have the more traditional
Inside, between the entrances is the bandai (番台), where the
attendant sits. The bandai is a rectangular or horseshoe-shaped
platform with a railing, usually around 1.5 to 1.8 m high. Above the
bandai is usually a large clock. Immediately in front of the bandai is
usually a utility door, to be used by the attendants only. The
dressing room is approximately 10 m by 10 m, sometimes partly covered
with tatami sheets and contains the lockers for the clothes. Often,
there is a large shelf storing equipment for regular customers.
The ceiling is very high, at 3 to 4 m. The separating wall between the
men's and the women's side is about 1.5 m high. The dressing room also
often has access to a very small
Japanese garden with a pond, and a
Japanese-style toilet. There are a number of tables and chairs,
including some coin-operated massage chairs. Usually there is also a
scale to measure weight, and sometimes height. In some very old
sentō, this scale may use the traditional Japanese measure monme
(匁, 1 monme = 3.75 g) and kan (1 kan = 1000 monme = 3.75 kg).
Similarly, in old sentō the height scale may go only to 180 cm.
Local business often advertises in the sentō. The women's side
usually has some baby beds, and may have more mirrors. The decoration
and the advertising is often gender-specific on the different sides.
There is usually a refreshment cooler here where customers can
self-serve and pay the attendant. Milk drinks are traditional
favorites and sometimes there is ice cream.
The bathing area is separated from the changing area by a sliding door
to keep the heat in the bath. An exception are baths in the Okinawa
region, as the weather there is usually already hot, and there is no
need to keep the hot air in the bath.
Sentō in Okinawa usually have
no separation between the changing room and the bathing area or only a
small wall with an opening to pass through.
The bathing area is usually tiled. Near the entrance area is a supply
of small stools and buckets. There are a number of washing stations at
the wall and sometimes in the middle of the room, each with usually
two faucets (karan, カラン, after the Dutch word kraan for faucet),
one for hot water and one for cold water, and a shower head.
At the end of the room are the bathtubs, usually at least two or three
with different water temperatures, and maybe a 'denki buro'
(電気風呂, electric bath). In the
Kansai area the
bathtubs are more often found in the center of the room, whereas in
Tokyo they are usually at the end of the room. The separating wall
between the men and the women side is also about 1.5 m high. The
ceiling may be 4 m high, with large windows in the top. On rare
occasions the separating wall also has a small hole. This was used to
pass soap. At the wall on the far end of the room is usually a large
ceramic tile mural or painting for decoration. Most often this is
Mount Fuji, but it may be a general Japanese landscape, a (faux)
European landscape, a river or ocean scene. On rarer occasions it may
also show a group of warriors or a female nude on the male side.
Playing children or a female beauty often decorate the women's side.
Behind the bathing area is the boiler room (釜場, kamaba), where the
water is heated. This may use oil or electricity, or any other type of
fuel such as wood chippings. The tall chimneys of the boilers are
often used to locate the sentō from far away. After the war Tokyo
often had power outages when all bath house owners turned on the
electric water heating at the same time.
Many modern sentō have a sauna with a bathtub of cold water (around
17 degrees Celsius) just outside it for cooling off afterwards.
Visitors are typically expected to pay an extra fee to use the sauna,
and are often given a wristband to signify this payment.
This section describes the basic procedure to use a sentō. The public
bath is an area where the uninitiated can seriously offend or
inconvenience the regulars.
Taking a bath at a public sentō requires at a bare minimum a small
towel and some soap/shampoo. Attendants usually sell these items for
100-200 yen. Many people bring two towels; a handtowel for drying and
a handtowel or washcloth for washing. A nylon scrubbing cloth or scrub
brush with liquid soap is normally used for washing. Other body
hygiene products may include a pumice stone, toothbrush, toothpaste,
shaving equipment, combs, shower caps, pomade, make up products,
powder, creams, etc. Some regular customers store their bucket of
bathing equipment on open shelves in the dressing room.
Entrance and undressing
Japan it is customary to remove one's shoes when entering a private
home. Similarly shoes are removed before entering the bathing area in
a sentō. They are kept in a shoe locker. The locker is usually
available free of charge. In a gender segregated sentō, bathers go
through one of the two doors. The men's door usually has a blue color
and the kanji for man (男, otoko), and the women's door usually has a
pink color and the kanji for woman (女, onna). The fee is set at 450
yen for all sentō in Tokyo. The attendant usually provides at
extra cost a variety of bath products including towel, soap, shampoo,
razor, and comb, ice cream or juice from the freezer can also be paid
for here. There are usually free lockers with keys (that may be worn
on the wrist into the baths) or large baskets provided to put personal
At onsen, or hot springs, the water contains minerals, and many people
do not rinse off the water from the skin, to increase exposure to the
minerals. In a regular sentō, people usually rinse off at the
Social and cultural aspects
1901 image of
As mentioned above, the Japanese public bath is one area where the
uninitiated can upset regular customers by not following correct
bathing etiquette designed to respect others. In particular; not
washing before bathing, introducing soap into the bath water and
Sentō commonly display a poster describing bathing
etiquette and procedures in Japanese or occasionally in other
languages for international customers.
Some ports in Hokkaidō, frequently used by foreign fishing fleet had
problems with drunken sailors misbehaving in the bath. Subsequently, a
few bath houses chose not to allow foreign customers at all.
It's common to hear people say, "gokuraku, gokuraku" when they get
into the bath. It means something to the level of divine pleasure;
it's a good feeling for the body and the soul.
Some public baths have signs refusing entry for people with tattoos.
However, one may be allowed in if the tattoos are not too obvious. If
one ventures to a public bathing place that is publicly owned, this
should not present a problem as they have a duty to let all tax-paying
citizens in. The original reason behind the ban was to keep out the
yakuza (officially called the "violence groups" by the police).
Japanese public baths have experienced infrequent outbreaks of
Legionella bacteria. In order to prevent such problems, the
sentō union adds chlorine to its baths. At the cost of higher levels
of chlorine, bacteria outbreaks are practically non-existent at sentō
facilities of today.
Interior of a modern Sentō
Rules and pricing are regulated per prefecture based on local
committees. Basic entrance fee for adults at a sentō in
¥450. Citing rise in oil prices as rationale, price has been raised
from ¥400 (2000–2006), to ¥430 (2006–2008), and again to ¥450
In Tokyo, the price for children to enter have remained unchanged: 6
to 11 year olds can enter at ¥180 each, while younger children can
enter at ¥80 each. Girls 13 years or younger and boys 8 or younger
are permitted to enter the baths of either gender. In other
prefectures, the cut off age can be as high as 16 in
Hokkaidō or as
low as 5 in Hyōgo.
Most sentō in
Tokyo also offer a premium service for which each
facility sets its own price, usually around ¥1,000. This option is
usually called a sauna, since at least sauna is included. At Civic
Land Nissei, for example, the sauna option includes access to more
than half of all the facilities available.
Larger scale public bathing facility types are called super sentō and
kenkō land, both more expensive than sentō, while super sentō offer
a more compromised price.
At ¥300 per adult, the cheapest prefectures to sentō baths are in
Yamagata, Tokushima, Nagasaki, Ōita, and Miyazaki.
The origins of the Japanese sentō and the Japanese bathing culture in
general can be traced to the Buddhist temples in India, from where it
spread to China, and finally to
Japan during the Nara period
Nara period to Kamakura period
Nara period to
Kamakura period is defined as "religious bathing".
Initially, due to its religious background, baths in
usually found in a temple. These baths were called yūya (湯屋, lit.
hot water shop), or later when they increased in size ōyuya
(大湯屋, lit. big hot water shop). These baths were most often
steam baths (蒸し風呂, mushiburo, lit. steam bath). While
initially these baths were only used by priests, sick people gradually
also gained access, until in the
Kamakura period (1185–1333) sick
people were routinely allowed access to the bath house. Wealthy
merchants and members of the upper class soon also included baths in
The first mentioning of a commercial bath house is in 1266 in the
Nichiren Goshoroku (日蓮御書録). These mixed-sex bath houses were
only vaguely similar to modern bath houses. After entering the bath,
there was a changing room called datsuijo (脱衣場). There the
customer also received his/her ration of hot water, since there were
no faucets in the actual bath. The entrance to the steam bath was only
a very small opening with a height of about 80 cm, so that the
heat did not escape. Due to the small opening, the lack of windows,
and the thick steam, these baths were usually very dark, and customers
often cleared their throats to signal their position to others.
Onna yu ("Bathhouse Women") by
Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815)
At the beginning of the
Edo period (1603–1867), there were two types
of baths common to the eastern and western regions of Japan
respectively. In Edo (present day Tokyo), bath houses contained
sizable pools, and were called yuya (湯屋, lit. hot water shop). In
Osaka, however, bathing establishments were primarily steam baths
called mushiburo (蒸し風呂, lit. steam bath) that had only shallow
At the end of the Edo period, the
Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868) at
different times required baths to segregate by sex in order to ensure
public moral standards. However, many bath house owners merely
partitioned their baths with a small board, allowing some voyeurism to
persist. Other baths avoided this problem by having men and women
bathe at different times of day, or by catering to one gender
exclusively. In spite of this, laws regarding mixed-sex bathing were
soon relaxed again.
Contributing to the popularity of public baths in the
Edo period were
female bathing attendants known as yuna (湯女, lit. hot water
women). These attendants helped cleanse customers by scrubbing their
backs. After official closing hours, however, a number of these women
would perform additional services by selling sex to male
customers. Similarly, some brothels in contemporary
Japan have women who specialize in bathing with and cleansing male
clientele. Such establishments are often called sōpu rando
As a preventive measure against prostitution, the Tokugawa shogunate
stipulated that no more than three yuna serve at any given bath house.
However, this rule was widely ignored, causing the shogunate to ban
female attendants from bath houses altogether and once again prohibit
the practice of mixed-sex bathing. Large numbers of unemployed yuna
thereafter moved to official red-light districts, where they could
continue their services. Up until 1870, there were also male washing
assistants called sansuke (三助, lit. three helps) who would wash
and massage customers of both genders. Unlike the yuna, these male
attendants were not known to engage in prostitution.
Mixed-sex bathing was prohibited once again after Commodore Perry
Japan in 1853 and 1854—drawing question to the morality of
Bathing in an Agricultural School in
Japan around 1920
Meiji period (1867–1912) the design of Japanese baths
changed considerably. The narrow entrance to the bathing area was
widened considerably to a regular-sized sliding door, the bathtubs
were sunk partially in the floor so that they could be entered more
easily, and the height of the ceiling of the bath house was then
doubled. Since the bath now focused on hot water instead of steam,
windows could be added, and the bathing area became much brighter. The
only difference between these baths and the modern bath was the use of
wood for the bathing area and the lack of faucets.
Furthermore, another law for segregated bathing was passed in 1890,
allowing only children below the age of 8 to join a parent of the
At the beginning of the
Taishō period (1912–1926), tiles gradually
replaced wooden floors and walls in new bath houses. On September 1,
1923 the great Kantō earthquake devastated Tokyo. The earthquake and
the subsequent fire destroyed most baths in the
Tokyo area. This
accelerated the change from wooden baths to tiled baths, as almost all
new bath houses were now built in the new style using tiled bathing
areas. At the end of the Taishō period, faucets also became more
common, and this type of faucet can still be seen today. These faucets
were called karan (カラン, after the Dutch word kraan for faucet).
There were two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold water, and
the customer mixed the water in his bucket according to his personal
Entrance of a typical sentō in Tokyo
World War II
World War II (for
Japan 1941–1945), many Japanese cities were
damaged. Subsequently, most bath houses were destroyed along with the
cities. The lack of baths caused the reappearance of communal bathing,
and temporary baths were constructed with the available material,
often lacking a roof. Furthermore, as most houses were damaged or
destroyed, few people had access to a private bath, resulting in a
great increase in customers for the bath houses. New buildings in the
post war period also often lacked baths or showers, leading to a
strong increase in the number of public baths. In 1965 many baths also
added showerheads to the faucets in the baths. The number of public
Japan peaked around 1970.
Immediately after World War II, resources were scarce and few
homeowners had access to a private bath. Private baths began to be
more common around 1970, and most new buildings included a bath and
shower unit for every apartment. Easy access to private baths led to a
decline in customers for public bath houses, and subsequently the
number of bath houses is decreasing. Some Japanese young people today
are embarrassed to be seen naked, and avoid public baths for this
reason. Some[who?] Japanese are concerned that without the "skinship"
of mutual nakedness, children will not be properly socialized.
While the traditional sentō is in decline, many bath house operators
have adjusted to the new taste of the public and are offering a wide
variety of experiences. Some bath houses emphasize their tradition,
and run traditionally-designed bath houses to appeal to clientele
seeking the lost Japan. These bath houses are also often located in
scenic areas and may include an open-air bath. Some also try drilling
in order to gain access to a hot spring, turning a regular bath house
into a more prestigious onsen.
Other bath houses with less pristine buildings or settings change into
so called super sentō and try to offer a wider variety of services
beyond the standard two or three bathtubs. They may include a variety
of saunas, reintroduce steam baths, include jacuzzis, and may even
have a water slide. They may also offer services beyond mere
cleansing, and turn into a spa, offering medical baths, massages, mud
baths, fitness centers, etc., as for example the Spa LaQua at the
Tokyo Dome City entertainment complex. There are also entire bath
house theme parks, including restaurants, karaoke, and other
entertainment, as for example the Ōedo
(大江戸温泉物語, Big Edo Hot Spring Story) in Odaiba, Tokyo.
(Note: The Ōedo
Onsen Monogatari is not a sentō.) Some of these
modern facilities may require the use of swimsuits and are similar to
a water park.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sento.
Taiwanese hot springs
^ "設備で検索". 1010.or.jp. Retrieved 2014-07-31.
^ Ryoko. "Sento Art: Public Bath House Paintings PingMag : Art,
Design, Life – from Japan". Pingmag.jp. Retrieved 2014-07-31.
^ "Japanese style spa bath". aqva.com.au. Retrieved 19 October
^ Find out what an onsen is. "
Onsen Warnings and Hassles".
Japan-onsen.com. Retrieved 2014-07-31.
- 平民新聞". D.hatena.ne.jp. 2006-05-10. Retrieved
^ "シビックランド日成 (Civic Land Nissei)". Supersento.com.
^ About "Sento" Japanese communal bath house
Tokyo Sento Association
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Sento Guide Guide to public baths in Japan
Japan Baths Public bath houses in Japan
www.OnsenJapan.net Interactive Google map of Japanese baths with
easy-to-read icons, pictures, and reviews
Search for Sento (Public Bath)
Tokyo Travel Guide, Sunnypages.jp
Super Sento Guide Guide to super sento in Japan
OTA Navi Ota Tourist Association
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Architectural Institute of Japan
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