Sento: Keeping Japan Clean Since the Edo Period
Although the spread of baths at home has reduced their numbers, Japan still has sento (public baths), and those sento have dedicated fans. From the fans’ point of view, sento offer spacious tubs where you can stretch your legs, drift off, and relax.
Sento are about more than just keeping clean, though. In the Edo period, they were important social centers too. Below we explore some of the lesser-known aspects of the history of sento.
A long history
According to the National Baths Union, references to sento can be seen in documents as early as the 13th century. The direct ancestors of today’s sento, machiburo or “town baths,” first appeared in 1591, at the end of the Warring States period. In those days, the lower half of the body was submerged while the upper half was steamed sauna-style, but by the start of the 17th century, the modern style of deep tub that people can fit their whole body in had become the most common.
In the 19th century, the “two-story sento” appeared, with space for social interaction upstairs. Visitors who had finished bathing would retire to the second floor to play go or shogi, enjoy tea and sweets, and generally relax and talk with whoever else was there.
Sento vs onsen
Sento and onsen are similar in that both offer a large tub of hot water to soak in, but they also have many differences. The most important is the source of the water. Sento use boilers to heat water for the bath, and sometimes add herbs or fruit to the bath for special events, to add fragrance or color.
Onsens, on the other hand, must use a natural hot spring as their source, of at least 25 degrees Centigrade. Most onsens below 42 degrees also require additional heating. The Onsen Act further requires that an onsen include at least one material from a list that includes such things as lithium ions and radon.
If your image of onsen comes mostly from movies or anime, you’re probably imagining a room with a picture of Mt Fuji above the tub, yellow buckets for rinsing… and in fact, many of them are like that! But there are also quite a few that do something different.
Fuku no Yu, in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, goes beyond the standard Mt Fuji to showcase the work of painters Kiyoto Maruyama and Morio Nakajima, two of the three remaining masters of the onsen wall painter’s art.
Elsewhere, in Ota Ward, Kaiseiyu has installed aquariums by their tubs, so that you can watch the fish swim while you float yourself. Reportedly, the aquariums are home to everything from goldfish and koi to carp and sturgeon.
So why not pay your local sento a visit? Even if you have a bath at home, a change is as good as a holiday!
Fuku no Yu
5-41-5 Sendagi, Bunkyo, Tokyo 113-0022
Telephone: +81 (0)3-3823-0371
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–12:00 midnight (weekdays), 8:00 a.m.–12:00 midnight (weekends and holidays), Mon-Thu and Sat-Sun
5-10-5 Nishikamata, Ota, Tokyo 144-0051
Telephone: +81 (0)3-3731-7078
Hours: 3:00 p.m.–0:30 a.m., Mon-Thu and Sat-Sun