At Japan’s communal bathing houses, you need to keep your humility aside and take the plunge – literally – into the large, steaming pool. Entering a “sento” for the first time may be a nerve wrecking experience for the unsuspecting foreigner, but for the well accustomed Japanese, communal baths proffer a lively prelude to an invigorating soak after a long, hectic day.
Historically, public baths in Japan simply have provided those with extremely small living quarters and bathrooms incapable of supporting the entire family, with an affordable place to leisurely wash up. Nowadays, the Japanese continue this tradition, regarding it as a social and/or family event. Yes, it does seem odd that they are suddenly willing to strip off their clothes in front of strangers, considering their usually introverted behavior and strict social norms. Nonetheless, there is wisdom in their understanding that sharing the primal, trivial act of bathing strengthens social bonds, which they regard as “skinship.”
Those who are uncomfortable parading around completely naked in front of strangers, can find the whole sento experience a bit challenging. Entering the bath house, you normally step into a line of shower hoses and faucets along the walls. Pick an empty spot, crouch on the low wooden stool (again, this may be challenging for some) and scrub yourself thoroughly using the shampoo and liquid soap from the dispensers. It is imperative to rinse the body well, in order to enter the public bath when absolutely clean; any remaining soap trace in the bathing pool is a serious breach of protocol.
Now, proceed to the bath itself where you will need to lower yourself into the pool delicately, as sometimes the water is so hot that it takes a while to get used to. The feeling is really ecstatic, once you get in. You can stretch out in the water, which could be as shallow as knee level or deep enough to easily submerge. For the ultimate experience, soak a small wash-towel in icy cold water from the showers and tidily fold it on top of your head as you soak in the soothing water.
Traditionally, Japanese bathe in the evening, but public bath houses remain open for many hours during morning hours also, so that you can wind down at any time of the day. These places are very affordable, and you don’t have to worry about shampoo and soap, as these items are provided, in addition to hair dryers, cotton swabs, moisturizing lotion, and towels for rent. Some modernized sentos include saunas and other facilities. Just be certain to wash yourself first at the showers, rinsing off all the soap before dipping in the pool.
By the way, when these sentos use natural spring water they become “onsen’s” or hot springs, but that is a story for another day.