Etiquette and Manners of Japanese Bath Houses

What is a Sento?

A sento is a Japanese bath house open to the general public with the price of roughly 500 JPY for adults.

Just as the changing rooms at the gym, people are separated by gender in these bath houses. 

Many locals and non-locals go to sentos to relax and enjoy the hot bath as the steamy water and over all ambience or impression there puts people in a calm and euphoric mood. Which may further yourself from the stressful chains of society.

A picture of a traditional sento. Photo by: Flickr@Amehare

A picture of a traditional sento. Photo by: Flickr@Amehare

What to bring?

For minimum supply, you would bring with you a towel and soap. Bring two towels, one for drying yourself and another for washing. Bring any facial/skin care products you may want to use. In case you forget to bring any items, you may purchase them at the sento. They usually sell towels, soap/shampoos and ice cream/juice drinks at the front. You can even try looking for vending machines, and my recommendation is to get an ice cold strawberry milk if you are willing to drink them. Not only that the sweet milk is soothing for me, but it re-hydrates me after I have spent time in the relaxing and composed atmosphere of the hot bath. Also, my throat feels nice as well when I down the tasty and milky strawberry drink.

Common Etiquette and Manners for Sentos

Sentos are separated by gender. There are two different entrances for two separate bathing areas. A entrance for men and women that are each in different areas of the sento facility. If one of those gender separated areas has a blue curtain covering top portions of the entrance, the area is usually for men. The blue curtain would most likely have a kanji, the Japanese character, stating men on the curtain, which is seen and written as "男”. "男” is pronounced as "Otoko". "Otoko" means men for Japanese. For female, generally the red affiliated curtain symbolizes the color for females to enter with the Japanese character for female or women pronounced as "Onna" stated on it. "Onna" is written on the red entry curtain as ”女” symbolizing women in Japanese Kanji. Be careful not to mix the colors up, remember blue=men and red=women.

Showering station next to the hot tub in Seiryu Ryokan. Photo by: Flickr@David Lisbona

Showering station next to the hot tub in Seiryu Ryokan. Photo by: Flickr@David Lisbona

Cleaning your body before getting into the hot bath is of huge importance. You would not want to bathe in the Ofuro, or Japanese bath tub, without cleaning your body first with soap and water at the showering area. The showering place is usually near the bath tubs.

Tattoos are generally not acceptable as well especially if it covers large areas of your body. But, depending on which sento you choose some will accept people with tattoos to enter. Some Japanese bath houses even provide white tape to cover your tattoos before entering the room where you bathe if that becomes necessary. Tattoos are generally considered a taboo in sentos or even to the Japanese society itself because in frequent cases people who have tattoos, especially full body ones, are involved in the Japanese organized crime group called the yakuza, or sometimes called the Japanese mafia. Nowadays tattoos are common amongst people that have no affiliation with the yakuza Organization, therefore; the sento facility staff can be much more lenient towards people especially foreigners with tattoos than compared to few decades back. The sento staff will allow small tattoos to show while bathing if they approve of them.

All in all, along with some cash, bring a towel and soap/shampoo if you would want to bring minimum supplies to the sento possible, remember to enter the changing room and bathing room according to your gender, clean your body with soap and water before entering the bath tub or ofuro by the near by showering place, and try to cover any tattoos if you have any and it becomes necessary for you to do so. 

Picture on the interior Sento wall traditionally in the hot bath bathing area Photo by: Flickr@antjeverena

Picture on the interior Sento wall traditionally in the hot bath bathing area Photo by: Flickr@antjeverena

People are usually enjoying there time at the sento, and they are there for the same reason that you possibility are and that is to relax and feel good at the warmth of the sento's therapeutic and relaxing atmosphere. There is no need to feel any pressure going to the sento. You can just relax, follow rules and regulations, and have an over-all pleasant time there.