Sentō: Japanese Communal Bath House

Japan consists of almost 7,000 islands. Over 70% of the country is mountainous; there are over 200 volcanoes in the Japanese jurisdiction. As a volcanically active nation, Japan has many bathing facilities and literally thousands of hot spring resorts scattered all over the country.

Sentō (銭湯) is a Japanese communal bath house that charges a fee for entrance and use of the facilities. Though over the years there has been a rapid decline in the need for sentō because modern Japanese residences now have their own baths, many Japanese still find that going to a public bath house is an important social ritual: a longstanding Japanese custom that “physical proximity brings emotional intimacy.”

Woodcut print by Kiyonaga of a Japanese communal bath house. 

A sentō varies from an onsen, which uses hot water from a natural hot spring. At an onsen, the bathing facility has at least one bath filled with natural hot spring water.

800px-Modern_sento_at_TakayamaThe origins of the Japanese bathing culture and the sentō in general can be traced back to Buddhist temples in India. The practice then spread to China and finally to Japan during the Nara period (710–784).  The Nara period and the Kamakura period (1185–1333) were known for their religious bathing rituals because of the predominant religious influence.

Modern sentō at Takayama. | sanmai

Baths were commonly found at temples during these periods and were called yūya (hot water shop). The baths were steam baths commonly used by priests and the sick.  Members of the upper class and wealthy merchants soon included baths in their residences. By the end of the Edo period (1603–1867), the Tokugawa shogunate segregated baths by gender to uphold public moral standards.

Tradition is important in Japan, and bathing in an onsen or sentō is a big part of the Japanese culture. The Japanese experience would not be complete without treating yourself to a relaxing dip in a hot spring or a warm bath to create a stronger kinship among friends or, as it is loosely termed, skinship.

 

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Check out LaQua resort, a natural spring, a hidden gem right in the middle of the bustling city of Tokyo.