Japanese bath etiquette: how to visit a sento

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At the end of a long day, a hot sento public bath can wash away your troubles, and that’s a pleasure worth sharing. Sento are a fading tradition but still dotted throughout Japanese suburbs, and even central Tokyo has a few ornate temple-like baths left. You’re likely to be the only non-Japanese at a sento, so to avoid standing naked and tongue-tied, find out what to bring, what to do there and which bath is electrified. Yes, electrified.

1. Pack your kit

You’re going to get naked. Completely. So the most essential item is a small towel to cover your privates. Everything else is optional. Most sento don’t provide soap and shampoo (although they sell them) so take these if you wish, along with a loofah, toothbrush and other toiletries. Don’t bring valuables, and expect some stares if you're heavily tattooed - many Japanese people still associate this with the yakuza, although it's highly unlikely you'll be mistaken for one.

2. Come to your sento

Sento range from small suburban baths to ‘super sento’ in the centre of Tokyo. When you enter, leave your shoes in a shoe locker. Pay the entrance fee (around ¥450) to either an old lady at a counter or at a vending machine for tokens.

3. Undress to impress

Men and women bathe separately, so look for the characters 男 for male and 女 for female to avoid embarrassment. Once through, you’ll find a change room with lockers for your clothes and belongings. After undressing, all you should be wearing is that small towel and a locker bracelet. Cross through the sliding doors with your toiletries to the tranquil baths.

4. Brush up on etiquette

The baths are a large, tiled space with deep rectangles of water and wafting steam. Speaking is kept to hushed, library levels. You’ll find open shower cubicles or basins lining the walls. Sit at a stool facing the wall and use the small bucket provided to wash yourself with warm water (soap optional). The baths are not for washing yourself in, so make sure you are sparkling clean before getting in. And find the toilets if you need to go! Hang up your towel and scrub yourself head to toe of any dirt, soap and shampoo.

5. The right bath

Enter a bath naked, or use your towel to tiptoe over if you are shy, but remember: the only thing that goes into a bath is your nude clean body. Choose your pool of water carefully. Maybe not the one with the lightning bolt symbol above it, unless a mild electric shock thrills you - the theory is that electricity contracts the muscles, thus relaxing you when you get out. Be careful also of the scalding bath - you’ll know it the moment you dip your pinkie in. Start instead with the hot bath, entering slowly to test the temperature. If there are other bathers, there’s no need to say a word or make eye contact, just enjoy. Relax, leave behind the world outside hurtling at bullet speed, and reflect upon the mural of ancient Mount Fuji.

6. Double dip

Once you have soaked enough in the hot bath, try the icy cold bath to snap you out of drowsiness. Some sento also have a mineral bath with rich, cola-black water.

Now step out and repeat the process, washing yourself again on a stool, then sinking into another bath - this is the centuries-old ritual of sento.

7. Lights out

To leave, go Japanese style - don’t wash off the minerals of your last dip, get changed into your pyjamas, try a milk from a vending machine, and stroll back to your bed, totally at ease with the world and ready for a deep sleep.