Phoebe Garthwaite takes us through the ins and outs of Japanese sentō culture.
Imagine this: You’re stood on a street corner in Tokyo’s hectic business district. It’s humid as hell, there’s a deadly 41°C heatwave and sun cream is melting off by the second. Fancy a hot bath?
I introduce to you, the Japanese sentō 銭湯 (せんとう). A sentō is a communal bathhouse and, let me tell you, throughout all the ups and downs of my time in Japan, a sentō visit was never a bad move. The character 銭, ‘sen’ means coin or money and 湯, ‘to’ translates to hot water or spring. Additionally, 湯, which is pronounced ‘tāng’ when alone, means soup! The rules and prices of sentōs are actually state regulated per prefecture in the local community. The basic entrance fee for a Tokyo sentō is only ¥450 (£3.10) which is a great deal, especially as many sentōs have these big colour-coded complementary shampoo, conditioner and body wash dispensers.
I spent my summer interning as an English teacher in Japan and I’d only been in the country for three days when I encountered my first sentō. It was Teacher Training Week in Tokyo and I was staying in the 1964 Olympic village. This accommodation became notorious among interns; ant infestations, questionable stains in the room and very old mattresses. I suggested that the mattresses might actually be a clever marketing strategy: want to sleep on the same bed as a 1960s Olympian? Even if sneaky seventy-year-old bedbugs come and get at me, it would be worth it: I’ve got my claim to fame now.
In reality though, my stay in the Olympic village was the start of something special. It began unexpectedly, just when my fellow Olympic village victims (Cat, Taylor and Lindsay) and I had lost faith. Our bodies were sticky and drained from a long and intense day of training. We had just lugged suitcases across the whole of Tokyo and its escalator-lacking maze of a public transport system, only to discover there were no showers to be found in our accommodation block.
I was so tired and jet-lagged that I could have cried. Except, I had already sweated out buckets of salty water so thought it best not to. Cat, our savvy French Canadian, went out to investigate. After half an hour, she floated back through the door as a glowing new woman. What Japanese magic had cast its spell on her? She didn’t say much, but informed us that the so-called ‘communal baths’ were “[our] only washing option!”.
Those two words conjured up the sticky-floored, chlorine-smelling showers of my local leisure centre, not a bathing experience I’d be eager to repeat. The fact that nakedness was compulsory at these Japanese baths also awoke the British prude within me – a nervous sweat pursued.
Cut to twenty minutes later and Taylor, Lindsay and myself were sat naked, side by side, utterly content and collectively poaching our worn-out bodies in the communal bath. In many ways, soup was an accurate description of the scenario as we sat motionless boiling ourselves like cubes of sweet potato.
I remember walking into the bathhouse, turning left towards the woman’s section (sentōs are strictly gender-segregated) and entering the changing room. I copied the Japanese woman in front of me and thus the sequence of the sentō began; remove your shoes, into a little shoe bucket they go and put on a pair of rubber sentō slippers. Shuffle your way to the clothes baskets and strip down until the only thing you’re wearing are the uniform rubber flippers on your feet. I distinctly remember the nerves as I stripped off for the first time. I’d never been to a nudist beach and had never been naked in public before. But, as soon as I left the changing room and walked into the steamy blue tile-covered wet-room, I realized I was just another one of the dozen naked bodies in there. If you need a visual cue here, think of a slightly more utilitarian version of the Hogwarts bathroom where Harry meets Moaning Myrtle. I was suddenly naked in public in a foreign country, with friends I’d only known for a few days, and it was utterly liberating. There were about twenty women milling around, between the rows of showers and the steaming hot bath in the middle, quietly going about their business. I forced my straight-laced English nature to leave me be and it was the start of a summer of beautiful nudity.
On another note, it may sound strange to crave a hot bath when it is indeed 41°C outside. However, let me explain, once you’re done soaking and sweating out all your troubles and stresses, you head to the sit-down shower section. You fill a bucket with icy water and pour the entirety over your head and body. It is a refreshment like no other and 100% more affective at curing a hangover than Japan’s best coffee.
The next day I persuaded my fellow Brits, Martha and Zoe, to come to the Olympic village sentō with me. They too, were instant sentō converts. The raw physical experience of roasting in a hot bath suddenly became the defining moment in the beginning of a new and meaningful friendship. The sentō became a fundamental pillar of my social interaction in Japan. Could you really be close friends with someone until you’d enjoyed each other’s company naked? I say not! The nakedness didn’t end there though. For the rest of the trip most nights out rightfully ended with a ‘let’s-sober-up-together’ shower as we debriefed the evenings events. Shout-out to my dear friend Martha and our slightly drunken shower-head waterfight as we tried to remove the mud and sludge off our bodies after skinny dipping in the beautiful lake Ashi.
I even had multiple mother-daughter trips to a sentō. My mum joined me out in Tokyo at the end of the summer and I was beyond excited to induct her into the ways of the sentō. She was a little surprised when a woman in the bath with us proceeded to perform an intricate yoga-like stretch sequence, whilst holding her breath completely submerged. I too was a little worried that this woman could have boiled – these baths are hot.
Naturally, I never experienced a sentō with my male friends, but upon talking to some of my London-based fellow interns and mentioning the word ‘sentō’, sweet bursts of nostalgia ensued. My ode to the humble sentō and my new-found love of nudity could go on forever. I can only implore you to go to Japan and experience it for yourself. That’s if I haven’t started my own London based communal-bathing company first.