The Bathhouses of Japan

by Nancy Bestor

A few minutes in a public bathhouse will teach you more about daily life in Tokyo than any book you could ever read,” says Lonely Planet’s Tokyo. Public bathhouses, or “sentos”, live on from the days when homes and apartments didn’t have showers or baths. But to many Japanese, sentos remain an important cultural meeting place where social and economic status is literally stripped away. Therefore, as a way to dive deeply into this culture (no pun intended), Bob and I decided to visit the Jakotsu-Yu bathhouse, a short walk from Senso-Ji temple in Asakusa. After a few wrong turns, we found Jakotsu-Yu tucked down an alley and of course, with no English signage.

At this moment, butterflies in the stomach began to flutter. As rank outsiders we were about to enter a revered and etiquette-filled Japanese institution. While we had been told that the Japanese will generally forgive foreigners’ ignorance of their social graces, the bathhouse is where this generosity ends. We initiated the entrance, removed our shoes and paid the attendant about $4 each for use of the facility, a locker and a towel. We then went our separate ways, Bob to the men’s side, and me to the women’s. Our research revealed that locals will watch foreigners very carefully, to make certain they get 100% clean and 100% rinsed before entering the baths themselves. I put my clothing into a locker and smiled at many women, most of whom were older and fortunately didn’t pay me much attention at all.

I was given a bucket and stool, and took these into the cleansing area where there were about two-dozen waist-high showers. Here one sits on the low stool and washes, and washes, and washes some more. After scrubbing and rinsing every single inch of my body several times, to make certain I didn’t offend, I set my bucket and soap aside and chose a bath to start in. I tried the hot, hot, hot, hot burn pool first, which was the largest pool in the place. I later learned it was 109 degrees. I must have made quite a face, because a kind woman quickly pointed me to a separate room, where there was an ice-cold pool (whose temperature was actually 71 degrees) and a medium temperature pool (100 degrees). Both pools were tiny, but everyone just seemed to scrunch in.

Soon I decided that I was ready to try the hot burn pool again. As I headed back, I noticed that the area I had previously occupied was now full and started to climb into a different section. At this point another Japanese woman pointed to a sign (in Japanese of course) and said something to me (also in Japanese, of course). I nodded and smiled politely, having no idea what the sign or the woman had said. Well, as it turns out, she was warning me, as this was the electric section, specially designed to simulate swimming with electric eels (true story!). I was shocked several times upon stepping in. I made a small noise, quickly hopped out, and gave a “now I understand” nod to the Japanese woman. It was amazing to see the locals sitting calmly in this electric bath, not batting an eye.

With my faux pas’ now out of the way, I was able to relax and enjoy myself. I hopped back and forth between pools without being shocked and had a very relaxing experience. After soaking my body until I felt like a wet noodle, I dried off, returned my stool and bucket, dressed and met Bob outside.