Sento vs. Onsen
Many foreigners think that Sento and Onsen are the same things, when in fact they are very different. Onsen are baths where the water comes from a natural spring. Sento are baths where the water comes from the tap. A simple mistake that is perpetuated by some of the ‘Super Sento’ (like Tokyo’s LaQua). Super Sentos are usually larger facilities with longer hours and sport many different baths that offer a variety of temperatures and additives as well as other various spa equipment, Jacuzzis and even full restaurants. Many of them are advertised as ‘Onsen’ to their foreigner visitors when they usually only have one or two real ‘Onsen’ baths and the rest are Sento. Some facilities will also say they have ‘Onsen’ when they in fact only bring in tanks of water and boil it instead of having water piping from a natural spring that would designate them as a ‘Onsen’.
How to use Sento
When you enter Sento you will be prompted to pay a fee. The fee for most Sento is usually around ¥500 and may be more if they have a special bath for you to use. However, Super Sento, with their larger facilities and special baths will cost much more. Towels, soaps and shampoos are also provided for a fee, but you can bring your own.
Remember that you cannot enter a Sento with any clothing on. Having tattoos may get you rejected from some Sento as tattoos still have a bad connotation for the Japanese people. Please do not take offence, but be aware of signs and posters that will warn against men and women with tattoos from bathing in certain Sento so that you can bath without incident. You are also required to take a shower before you get into the Sento to avoid contaminating the water. As such, you should also keep your towel away from the water as well.
Before you enter the changing rooms again, remember to wipe your body up. You don’t want to take another shower after Sento as it would wash away all the minerals from the baths you just came from. Some Sento will provide combs and hair dryers in the changing rooms for you to use.
Many Sento also have massage chairs and saunas that you can try out as well. Or, you can even have someone scrub your body for a fee! Sento will also sell food and drinks for you to relax with after your bath. It’s custom to drink a bottle of nice chilled milk after a soak in the Sento, so have yourself one at the concession stand before you leave.
The Health Benefits of Different Temperatures
Every Sento has a variety of baths for you to enjoy, each with its own prescribed health benefits. The temperatures themselves can have a variety of effects depending on how hot or cold it is. Each Sento usually has a moderately heated bath, a cold bath, a hot bath and an electric bath. The moderately heated bath may be a good starter before you jump into the different temperatures. It is said that extremely hot temperature baths are good for blood circulation, allowing your heart to work faster and stronger. A good long soak in a hot bath can apparently help you lose more weight. Cold baths apparently help your blood to flow well. Taking a dip in the hot bath and then subsequently the cold bath can help your body cleanse itself of nasty toxins.
The Different Kinds of Sento Bath Waters
Additives into Sento are also said to be very good for your health and some bath houses will change the additives to their baths every month so you can enjoy something new every time you go. Salt water baths are good for people with chronic pains such as arthritis. Green tea baths are good for keeping your skin looking fresh and young. Wine baths are said to help keep your skin protected from environmental hazards. Balneology is still a young science, so take such benefits with a grain of salt.
The most interesting of the baths in Sento is the electric bath. It is a bath where a low-level electric current pulses through the water, giving you a tingling feeling. It supposedly helps with stiffness in the muscles, but one can never be too sure. Still, if you’re feeling brave enough, have a dip in the Japanese electric bath!
There are a few times a year where Sento around the country will sync up their special baths with a special additive.
In May, Sento will offer an ‘Iris Bath’ or ‘Shobu-yu’ where Iris roots and leaves will be added to the bath in celebration of Children’s Day in Japan. It is said that Iris can ward off illnesses and also help with the growth of children so Iris is added into the water.
In the month of December, most bathhouses are hosting a ‘Yuzu-Bath’. Yuzu is a Japanese yellow citrus fruit that is very fragrant. It is said that Yuzu can help to repair skin and prevent colds. Enjoy a hot bath with Yuzu fruit floating on the water.
October 10th is designated the day of taking a bath at Sento! Make sure to go to your local Sento and have a dip in honor of ‘Public Bath Day’ in Japan!
One can never really get enough of bathhouses, once one is comfortable enough to attend one. And even that can only come with practice. Even after many attendances, many foreigners might still feel some trepidation going to Sento by themselves, but it is definitely worth the experience as well as the health benefits you will get from soaking in all these different baths.
For more information, please refer to this video graciously provided by Otaku (大田区), a municipality of Tokyo, on the way to enter a public bathhouse for foreign guests. It provides a visual guide for first time visitors and some very interesting information on Sento.
Please enjoy this video and enjoy Sento!
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