Sento: the art of Japanese bathing

By on October 24, 2010
Photo © Elena Derevtsova
Long before you could pop into a day spa for a little bit of respite from the daily grind, and way before Tokyo Gas was able to heat the water for your nightly bath or morning shower, and certainly centuries before the floodgates of Japanese isolationism were blown open by Western influence, forever diluting thousands of years of rich history and culture, there were sento.

Sento, or traditional community penny baths, were a staple of early Japanese society. With no indoor plumbing to speak of, the only place to cleanse oneself was usually down the street, or around the corner, at the neighborhood bathhouse.

But now, a more than 400-year-old Japanese tradition is in danger of going the way of the dinosaur.  Year by year, or more realistically, month by month, the doors of establishments that have been around for generations are either being temporarily closed for modern renovations, or are being permanently shut due to lack of business.
The era of sento, for some an indelible part of daily life, may soon be remembered only in Japanese folklore.

The Birth of Japan’s Communal Bathing
Located atop the intersection of the Earth’s Pacific, Philippine, and Eurasian tectonic plates, or what is better known geologically as the notorious “ring of fire”, Japan is a natural repository for hot springs, and for centuries, its inhabitants have roamed the landscape in search of these natural pools of mineralized, steaming water.

And while ritualistic bathing for religious, healing and restorative purposes is said to have occurred as far back as 297 CE, the origins of Japan’s bathing culture can be traced back to the Buddhist temples in India, from where it spread to China, finally arriving here during the Nara period (710 to 784 CE).   

Research conducted by American expatriate and self-proclaimed sento aficionado Elizabeth Wenner, indicates that during the Kamakura Era (1192-1333), Warlord Minamotono Yoritomo benevolently offered his people a grand seyoku (hot bath) lasting 100 days, during which more than 10,000 people attended.  Following its success,   the  Tokaji  Temple opened its own public bathhouse in 1239 as a testament to the significance seyoku was gaining as a crucial, daily part of Japanese society.

“(But) it wasn’t until 1266 (that) the word ‘sento’ was used for the first time in a Nichiren Buddhist document,” says Wenner, explaining its derivation from the words sen (dollar) and to (water), which people understood to mean “small money bath”, or “hot water for coins”.

And while it is hard to pinpoint exactly when sento changed from being a free bath to a ‘pay for’ bath, Wenner has learned that somewhere around 1592, before Tokyo became Japan’s capital city, the first commercial bath was established by a person named Ise Yoichi near the Edobashi (Tokyo Bridge), but remained largely unnoticed.  

“It wasn’t until shogun (hereditary military commander) Tokugawa leyasy made Edo the nation’s capital, and its population exploded to over 1.5 million (that) each neighborhood was equipped with its own sento,” she explains.

A Look Back

Originally possessing functional rather than aesthetically pleasing decor, early sento were plain, utilitarian establishments.

Customers entered the datsubai (changing rooms) and received their ration of water with which they scrubbed themselves clean before entering the communal bathing area by stooping through zakuroguchi (narrow entranceway) designed to keep the heat from escaping.  The lack of windows coupled with the thick steam emanating from the baths created a cave-like atmosphere where, it is said, that vision was so impaired people often cleared their throats to signal their position to others.

These todanburo or closet style baths, were initially non-segregated so men and women freely gathered together to bathe and relax in their sweltering environs.  At a time when Japanese society was rigidly divided along class lines, the tradition of hadaka no tsukiai  (naked friendship, or skinship of mutual nakedness) was seen as a great equalizing and socializing force for people of all ages, where bathing naked with others was a strong indication of one’s honesty and desire to reveal one’s own ‘naked truths’.

Growing Pains
Towards the latter part of the Edo Period (1603-1867), sento (referred to as yuya in the Edo dialect and furoba in Osaka) evolved from simple single-storey enterprises housing baths on the main floor with larger, more spacious lounge areas above, where patrons could exercise, relax on tatami mats, drink sake and/or play the ancient game of shogi (Japanese Chess).  Sento started maturing, and not before long, the humble neighbor-hood bathhouses starting employing yuna  (bath women) who worked as back scrubbers during the day only to change both their attire and job description for the night.

“Not only did these establishments start to sell refreshments, but they also started employing ‘service women’ to wash men’s backs, eventually turning sento into gentlemen’s clubs, where after 4pm, prostitutes were permitted to enter and work,”  Wenner explains before adding that these sento ‘pleasure houses’ were eventually outlawed in 1841 by the Bakufu government and relocated to the red light Yoshiwara district, an area of town where brothels and prostitution flourished until the Great Earthquake of 1923.

However, for sento more changes were afoot as the Edo Period gave way to the Meiji period (1865-1905) and Western influences started seeping into Japanese culture.

By 1877, kairyo-buro sento started appearing in Kanda, eliminating the narrow zakuroguchi, installing higher ceilings and walls, as well as small windows for the steam to escape so customers could see and move around with more ease.  Baths grew in size, getting both longer and wider as water continuously flowed from outside sources via teppoburo (rifle baths) into improved step-down tubs.

But the most significant change (some say blow to sento) was the end of communal bathing in the Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka areas by 1890.  No longer was there any skinship of mutual nakedness as males and females were now forbidden to bathe together the result, no doubt, of following a more Judeo-Christian doctrine to gain more favor in the eyes of the western world.  Yet sento continued to grow in popularity with new establishments opening regularly.

The Great Quake & WWII

In 1923, at the tail end of the Taisho Period (1912-1926), the Great Kanto Earthquake hit, leveling most of Tokyo, after which all sento were rebuilt using ceramic tile.  Not only was this stronger and more hygienic, but it also gave artists new ways to express themselves while enhancing the decor of each establishment.  Thus traditional sento artwork of Mt. Fuji, gods of good fortune and female depictions, was born.  By 1927, further introduction of separate hot and cold faucets ushered in the age of personal washing stations that are still commonplace today.  As technology improved, so did sento – until World War II.

Of the nearly 2,800 sento in and around Tokyo before the way, only 400 survived. But during the 1950s and 1960s, sento again grew vigorously, peaking near 2,700 by 1968.  But as indoor plumbing became more common in living spaces, and as the social landscape changed, sento attendance started to wane.

“The older generation, who grew up using sento, (was) thinning.  The younger generation did not appreciate the cultural value of (this) practice, opting for more ‘hip’ alternatives.  sento is a reflection of a time in Japan’s history before the trappings of the modern world were made available to them; an idea too foreign to entertain for any Japanese person born into the slipstream of modernity,” Wenner says with sadness.

Coupled with Tokyo’s insatiable appetite for renewal, and as the value of available real estate continues to increase, the demise of sento is becoming a real possibility.

According to the Tokyo Sento Association’s annual  directory,  developers  who  are  more interested in building high-rise apartment complexes are continuously targeting sento owners who, they think, are merely perpetuating an outdated community service.  Bathhouse owners are invited to stay on in the new establishments, but at a greatly scaled-down size, prompting some sento owners to outright buy their buildings, thus protecting both their livelihood and the sento tradition.

Future Outlook
It is said that the Japanese bathe more often than any other people, and it is for this reason that the sento, in its various guises, is still available to be enjoyed for its social aspects, its cultural connections, or just as a simple means of relaxation.

Sento has a long and proud history as a place where life balances out, where divisions based on stature and money melt away.  In more than four centuries, there has been but one recorded public incident involving sento:  In 2001 in Otari, Hokkaido, a man sued a sento owner who had denied him entrance because he was a foreigner, and won under Japan’s non-discrimination laws.  But until and since then, there has been nothing but contented bathers from Hokkaido to Kyushu.

Today, you can still visit a traditional bathhouse and immerse yourself in the past, surrounded by images and the atmosphere of days gone by, or you can opt for the modernity of a super-sento; an all-inclusive, one-stop sento/spa/restaurant/izakaya experience that is gaining popularity with both families and the younger set.

But remember that from its zenith of 2,700 Tokyo sento in the late 1960s, now just 1,200 remain, and approximately 7,000 are still in business nationwide, with some 300 closing each year.  While sento may not be on a direct collision course with extinction, at this rate, they may very well disappear from Japan’s landscape within the next 25 years.  Have you been?

Stephen Lebovits is a Canadian freelance journalist/photographer living in Tokyo.

About Stephen Lebovits