4 Things You Didn’t Know About Japan’s Public Baths

Like how they started in the first place.

There is no nation that enjoys public baths as much as Japan. It’s not just because the country is blessed with a hot and humid climate, but also because these public baths, or
sento as they are commonly known, have developed into a unique cultural activity.

In recent years, however, roughly 50 sento establishments have closed every year. The reasons vary from the sento being too outdated, the lack of continuity in the business, and the fact that it’s now more common for homes to have their own baths.

Even under these circumstances, public baths are still important. They refresh people’s minds and bodies, and strengthen fading relationships with the local community.

To help you understand the history and the role of sento in Japan, we’ve asked Kentaro Imai, an expert who has already helped build 15 sento establishments, to tell the story of sento.

They were first built to attract more followers.

Sento began in the sixth century. When Buddhism, which put a lot of importance on the virtue of bathing, was first introduced, places called yuya were built in precincts to attract followers. This provided people the opportunity to take a bath (steam bath) for free.

The popularity of this kind of bathing facility led to the creation of sento culture.

Then people realized how lucrative it could be.

During the Heian period, public baths called yokujo were created. This was when people started charging fees for baths. The bathing custom became widely recognized in the Edo period, and sento became popular as a place for people to relax in. Along with the modernization of Japan during the Meiji and Taisho periods, former wooden washrooms and bathtubs were replaced with tiled ones, which gradually evolved into the familiar sento of today.

The sento in Tokyo are very well known for their architecture.

Tokyo public baths look like splendid palaces, but these types of sento are actually limited to the Tokyo area and aren’t seen at sento in rural places. The exquisite style emerged from the period of the reconstruction after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. To cheer people up, carpenters who were familiar with palace carpentry built the simple sento into magnificent structures called karahafu yoshiki. They captured the hearts of the masses and the Tokyo-style sento was born.

Public baths are usually adorned with illustrations of Mt. Fuji. 

Traditionally, sento users are asked to imagine Mt. Fuji before stepping inside the bath. In fact, the famous mountain is drawn on a lot of sento establishments.

It is said that this tradition started in the first year of the Taisho period (1912), at the place called Kikai-yu in Sarugaku Town, located at Tokyo’s Kanda District. To make the children of the visitors happy, the master of the sento requested Hiroshiro Kawagoe, an artist of western styles, to paint a picture of Mt. Fuji from his hometown in Shizuoka. From then on, people have continued to use Mt. Fuji as the sento’s image.

When you immerse yourself in the hot bath while gazing at the art of Mt. Fuji, it almost feels like you’re in a different world. In fact, people have likened it to misogi, a purification ceremony to cleanse the body and soul with the purified waters of Mt. Fuji.

The next time you drop by a public bath, remember the story of sento and how certain events in history shaped the way we know it today.

Provided by Japan Walker™, Walkerplus™, and Tokyo Walker (7 October 2017)


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