You may already be familiar with onsen, Japanese hot spring resorts nestled in mountain hideaways or river valleys where geothermally heated groundwater bubbles to the surface. You may even be planning a trip to your favorite one right now as an escape from the city this winter.
Sento, or communal public bathhouses, offer a similar experience to onsen in the heart of the city—though the former is a distinctly urban experience that uses heated city water, while the latter uses only naturally occurring hot springs.
Traditionally, sento were gathering places where families could wash, enjoy a soak or a sauna, gossip and relax at a time when private residential baths were a luxury—or even nonexistent. Though the number of bathhouses has declined since the post-war period, they are still community fixtures.
There remain close to 1,000 sento across the city, all regulated by the Tokyo Sento Association—which means they cost as little as ¥450 (about US$4) to access. Many facilities tout the health benefits and restorative properties of the waters. Lately, there has been a move to refurbish and modernize some older properties into more upscale, boutique establishments that are popular with the younger generation and their families while others have turned into “super sento”—day spas that operate like an urban onsen with all the amenities.
HOW TO ENJOY SENTO
Let’s get one thing out of the way: sento (and onsen) require you to be naked in the bath. Don’t worry, the pools are segregated with different areas for men and women. If you’re shy, relax—nobody is looking. Communal bathing has been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries and is said to promote family and community bonding, lend itself to honesty, more direct communication and more respect for each other as humans.
After you’ve paid and collected a small towel, enter the men’s or women’s area, usually marked with a blue noren (curtain) for the men and a red one for the women. Find a vacant locker or small basket on a shelf, disrobe and place your belongings into it. Enter the pool area and wash thoroughly at the row of faucets and showers—it’s taboo to enter the hot pool without cleaning.
If there are is more than one pool, choose one with a comfortable temperature—the large baths are usually around 42 degrees Celsius (about 108 degrees F), slip into the water softly—no splashing or jumping—and enjoy as your muscles slowly relax.
After you’ve had a long soak, exit the bath and use the small towel provided to dry off and head to the dressing room. While it may not be scenic Japanese resort, you’ll be free of tension, squeaky clean and ready to venture home or out to explore the local neighborhood streets—like a true local.
A large designer bath in central Tokyo, Minatoyu uses “soft” water obtained by removing minerals such as calcium and magnesium from the natural springs—which they say is very gentle to the skin and highly moisturizing. Other amenities include two types of sauna (low and high humidity), gentle electric current pool and a pure white, “silky bath” with ultra-fine bubbles.
1-6-2 Minato, Chuo-ku. Open Sun-Fri, 3pm-12:30am; closed Mon. Closest station: Hatchobori (Hibiya & Keiyo lines). www.minatoyu.jp
Shimizuyu is a recently renovated boutique bathhouse in Aoyama that has been at the same spot for over 100 years. It uses“soft” water obtained by removing minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which they say is very gentle to the skin and highly moisturizing. It also has two types of sauna (low and high humidity), gentle electric current pool and a pure white, “silky bath” with ultra-fine bubbles. 3-12-3 Minamiaoyama, Minato-ku. Open weekdays, noon-midnight; Sat & Sun noon-11pm; closed Fri. Closest station: Omotesando (Ginza/Hanzomon/Chiyoda line). www.shimizuyu.jp
A traditional Japanese community bath open since the Edo period. A perfect introduction to old-school communal bathing culture. A huge image of Mount Fuji dominates the baths, with mosaics of pines and cherry blossoms on other walls. Vending machines issue tickets in Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean. 1-11-11 Asakusa, Taito-ku. Open Wed-Mon, 1pm-midnight, closed Tue. Closest station: Asakusa. www.jakotsuyu.co.jp
Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
More of a bathing theme park than a real hot spring, Oedo Onsen Monogatari recreates an old Japanese resort town. It features large common baths, low temperature saunas, massage and various other aesthetic treatments. Between baths, enjoy wearing yukata as you stroll through a lantern-filled onsen village with a festival atmosphere and play carnival games, eat traditional Japanese food and shop for souvenirs. Note: strict no tattoo policy. 2-6-3 Aomi, Koto-ku. Open daily, 11am-9am. Closest station: Telecom Center (Yurikamome line), Tokyo Teleport (Rinkai line). ¥2,480. www.ooedoonsen.jp
A real onsen in the heart of Shinjuku, Nagominoyu features baths filled from the natural sodium chloride hot springs of Musashino and a popular carbonated bath. There is also a healing spa with bedrock and hot-air saunas (Finnish style). Guests can stay overnight. No tattoo policy. 1-10-10 Kamiogi, Sugunami-ku. Open daily, 10am-9am. Closest station: Ogikubo (Chuo line). ¥2,000. www.nagomino-yu.com