How to Use A Sento
A big part of Japanese culture is the bathhouse. People of Japan have been visiting bathhouses for ages for health and relaxation. There's onsens, sentos, and ryokans, which all seem very similar. The difference is that onsens are baths with a hot spring source and are more about relaxation and the pleasure of sitting in the hot water, while sentos are more practical, focusing on using the bath as a means to get clean, and the water source is usually regular heated water. Onsens and sentos are typically public and anyone can pay a fee to use them. Lastly, a ryokan is a traditional inn that includes communal baths. And they're fairly expensive. =(
The Airbnb in which we spent two nights Takayama, Japan was attached to a historic sento bathhouse, and was essentially our poor man's ryokan, as the baths were right on the other side of our tatami-mat bedroom walls. While we were there, we learned a lot about sento etiquette from both our host's instructions as well as trial and error, since there's a lot of subtleties about which our host didn't know we'd be unsure!
So here's our guide on how to use a sento in case you ever find yourself unwittingly thrown into one with just some soap and a bucket and no clue what to do:
Bring along what you need – Some bathhouses provide soap and shampoo, others don't. If you're not sure what's included, bring along the basics of what you'd normally use in the shower to clean your body and hair as well as a small towel to use to scrub your body and a larger towel for drying off afterwards. (This is where we really screwed up! Our host gifted us small towels to use to wash ourselves, but we didn't realize we needed a bigger towel as well. Josh, smartly kept his small towel dry for use after the bath, while I used mine to wash my body and then, scrambling, had to use my dry – but not clean – t-shirt to pat the water off myself.)
Leave your shoes at the door, pay your fee at the front desk and head into the locker room, mentally preparing yourself to get naked with strangers. Most public bathhouses have a woman's bath and a men's bath. Get naked. Leave your clothes in a provided basket, put your valuables in a locker, take the locker key with you (usually attached to a bracelet you can wear), and head into the pool area without a shred of clothing on you. You can bring along a hand towel to semi cover yourself if you'd like, but it's pretty pointless as you'll just have to ditch it pretty soon. (Side note: If you have tattoos, you may be refused entry if they're obvious or get some unwanted attention as many Japanese people associate body ink with the yakuza. If possible, you might consider covering up your tattoos with a bandage.)
Take your shower supplies, grab a stool and pull it up to the shower heads along the wall around the bath. Use your soap to clean off the stool and then sit on it facing the wall and wash yourself as thoroughly as possible. Try to do this while sitting down as it's considered impolite to stand since you may spray another bather while cleaning in that position. (Did one of us completely skip using the stool the first time because she had no idea what to do with it and was super intimidated? Absolutely!) The goal here is to get as completely clean as possible before entering the bath so as not to contaminate the water at all.
Walk into the bath slowly to let your body adjust as you enter. You can take your small (or “modesty”) towel with you if you'd like to cover some of your bits as you walk into the bath, and if you do, then put it on your head as many bathers do or on the side of the bath, but it shouldn't ever touch the water. Your hair also shouldn't touch the water, so if it's long, you might want to tie it up.
Find a comfortable place to sit, lean back, and enjoy the water for approximately 10-15 minutes if it's is very hot and longer if it's not. It's customary for sentos to have a painting of Mt. Fuji on the wall, for your gazing pleasure while soaking.
Once finished, feel free to rinse off again at the shower if desired and wash the stool again before returning it to where you got it. Then return to the locker room, get dressed, and collect your shoes as you leave.