Sento (銭湯)

A sento (public bathhouses) is a facility that offers fee-based bathing. It's a kind of public bathhous in Japan.


The term "public bathhouse" is defined as follows in the laws of Japan:

Provision set forth in Article 1 of the 'Public Bath House Act'
The term 'public bath house,' in the Act, refers to a facility that offers a public bath using warm water, hot saltwater (including bath), onsen (hot spring) or others.

Provision set forth in Article 2 of the 'Act on Special Measures Concerning the Securing of Public Bathhouses'
The term 'public bathhouses,' in the Act, refers to public bathhouses specified in paragraph 1 of Article 1 of the Public Bath House Act (Act No. 139 of 1948), for which a bathing fee is specified based on the provision set forth in Article 4 of the Price Control Ordinance (Ordinance No. 118 of 1946).

Public bathhouses subject to the Public Bath House Act are categorized into 'ordinary public bathhouses' and 'other public bathhouses,' pursuant to the regulations of the respective prefecture.

The term 'ordinary public bathhouse' is generally defined as a 'public bathhouse established for the basic necessities for health in daily life,' and 'ordinary public bathhouses' are generally called 'sento.'
The regulations of each prefecture specify the sanitation guidelines for facilities as well as the quality standards for bathwater.

The term 'other public bathhouses' refers to bathhouses that are operated in a manner different from that of a sento.
Some autonomous bodies call other public bathhouses 'special public bathhouses.'

The upper limit of the bathing fee is decided and specified by each prefectural governor pursuant to the provisions set forth in the Price Control Ordinance (which was proclaimed before the proclamation of the current Constitution and has the same binding effect as the law). Therefore, the fee differs according to the prefecture. Each prefecture adopts a system of classifying the fee into 'adults' (middle-school students or above), 'children' (elementary-school students) and 'infants' (babies and children under school age). Some regions charge an extra shampooing fee when people shampoo their hair.

The History of Sento

At the end of the Heian period, a kind of sento (recognizable in the present day) appeared in Kyoto.

In the Kamakura period, there appeared some temples and shrines that allowed the public to use 'yokudo' (bath halls) at no charge, such facilities having been established there in order for Buddhist monks to purify themselves. Eventually, once the manorial system had collapsed, such temples and shrines started to charge bathing fees, and it's said that this was the origina of the full-fledged sento.

The first sento in the Edo period was a bathhouse using a moist-air bath, which was opened in 1591 by ISE no Yoichi near Zenigame-bashi Bridge at Edo-jo Castle.

The present-day manner of using a bathtub started during the Edo period. At that time, an entrance called a zakuro guchi (entrance to a public bath) was established in front of the bathtub. The zakuro guchi made the inside very steamy and dark, so that users couldn't tell whether the bathwater was clean or not. Additionally, it is said that zakuro guchi was tampered with so as to put the used water back into the bathtub.
"Yuya Mansai Koyomi" (a calendar of comical topics at bathhouses) said that 'the taking of water spilled from the wooden floor at the wash place started in the Bunsei era.'
(The government banned the zakuro bathhouses in 1879.)
Because it was difficult, from the management perspective, to establish separate bathtubs for men and women, people would bathe together irrespective of age or sex. It is said that people would take baths while wearing bathing clothes such as yukata (Japanese summer kimono). The inside was dark because the entrance was small and no windows were established so as to prevent the steam from coming out. Therefore, thefts and situations corrupting public morals occurred. Although mixed bathing was banned under the 'Ban on Mixed Bathing' in 1791, and later under the Tempo Reforms, the ban wasn't always observed. Separate bathing by gender on alternate days or by setting a different time was tried in Edo. The sento bathhouse functioned as a place for entertainment and social intercourse among ordinary people, and rakugo (traditional comic storytelling) was sometimes held there. In particular, the zashiki (Japanese style tatami room) was established on the second floor of the otokoyu (men's bath) and was used as a resting room. "Ukiyo-buro" (The Bathhouse of the Floating World), written by Sanba SHIKITEI, detailed the conditions of that time. A bow with an arrow notched to the bowstring, or a signboard illustrating such a bow, was occasionally displayed at the entrance to the sento at that time. This was a kind of play on words linking 'Yumi-iru' (shooting a bow) and 'Yu-iru' (taking a bath).

Before the Meiji period, public bathhouses were generally called 'sento' or 'yuya' in Edo and were called 'furoya' in Kamigata (the area of Kyoto and Osaka). At that time, only the samurai residences of affluent persons could have home baths, and basically it was prohibited to have a home bath from the viewpoint of disaster prevention in Edo, where fires often occurred. Although large-scale mercantile houses came to have baths at the end of the Edo period, the full-fledged popularization of home baths was seen later, during the period of rapid growth following World War II.

Even though mixed bathing was banned out of consideration for foreigners in the Meiji period, the sento reached new heights of prosperity along with the advanced urbanization and improved awareness of hygiene. Sento were constructed everywhere, especially after the war, when the urban population increased to a significant extent.

In the modern age, only a small number of sento would hold concerts during the days on which the baths were closed. There are such benefits that a performer can secure a hall with a high ceiling, and the sento can aim at the effect of attracting visitors. Some of the sento that had closed were remodeled into cafes and modern art galleries after their interiors were renovated. Such new challenges are met, taking advantage of architectural heritages.

The Number of Sento

The number of Sento joining the Public Bathhouses Union (All Japan Public Bathhouses Association) was 5,267 as of the end of March 2005. Since the period of high economic growth, both the numbers of visitors to sento and the numbers of sento have decreased significantly because housing equipped with bathrooms became popular and bath facilities called 'super sento' opened one after another in the Heisei period. Even in Osaka Prefecture which has the largest number of sento in Japan, each year 30 to 60 sento close their doors, and consequently the number decreased from 2,531 in 1969 to 1,103 at the end of March 2008.

As of May 24, 2006, the number of sento charging bathing fees for adults in 6 prefectures in the Tohoku region was 112 (350 yen) in Aomori Prefecture, 44 (350 yen) in Iwate Prefecture, 22 (360 yen) in Akita Prefecture, 20 (360 yen) in Miyagi Prefecture, 4 (300 yen) in Yamagata Prefecture and 25 (350 yen) in Fukushima Prefecture.


A typical sento is structured as follows (the layout shows the most popular pattern of sento in the Kanto region):

Men's bath and women's bath

The bath facility has an entrance divided for men and women before the dressing room. The layout shows that a men's bath is situated on the left side (M) and a women's bath is situated on the right (F). However, there is no rule as to which bath should be situated on which side, so occasionally the opposite arrangement is used. It seems that a women's bath is situated on the side that can prevent peeping from the exterior.

Overall structure

A: Fuel room: Off limits except for employees
The boiler area is linked to the outside.

(1) Fuel
(2) Boiler
B (bathroom): Largely divided into bathtub and washing area
Occasionally, a shower or a sauna room is provided.

(3) Bathtub: Sometimes the bathhouse will be equipped with a water bath, electric bath, stream of water cascading onto the back, zaburo (bathtub with massage water flow, in which visitors can sit down), jet bath, kusuriyu (medicated bath), open-air bath, etc. Sometimes the rules and manners for bathing are displayed in the dressing rooms of public bathhouses, especially for people who are unfamiliar with Japanese-style bathing. Some public bathhouses are also equipped with water faucets only for clean hot water to be used outside the bathtub. Generally, in eastern Japan this water faucet is established in the innermost recess of the bathroom, while in western Japan it's situated in the center of the bathroom.

(4) Water faucet: For both hot water and cold water
The 'yuya water faucet,' from which hot water runs at the push of a button, is often used. Many public bathhouses are equipped with showers having combination taps.

C: Dressing room and entrance: Some public bathhouses are equipped with a resting room just before the dressing room. High-class rattan is occasionally used instead of wooden flooring.

(5) Baby bed: Mainly installed in the dressing room of the women's bath

(6) Bathroom basket: Box on the shelf in which to put clothes that have been taken off; equivalent to the present-day locker
On rare occasions, a locker is available for monthly rental.

(7) Bandai (platform for the attendant (often the owner) at which to collect a fee or watch over the dressing rooms, placed near the entrance): Bandai existed in sento at least in the Edo period. The bandai is situated at a place as shown in the layout so as to watch over both the men's and women's baths. However, the bandai is designed to be situated as a front desk in new facilities, being separate from the dressing room.

(8) Noren: A large noren (a short (split) curtain hung at the entrance of a room) is used at the front entrance.

(9) Shoe cupboard: Each unit can be locked with a simple lock in many cases. An umbrella stand is also locked.

(10) Spot garden: In some facilities, small Japanese-style plants are arranged in a corner.

Painted art

A painting of Mt. Fuji on the front wall of the men's bath was a symbol of the bath culture in Japan. Upon hearing the word 'sento,' many people recall a painted mural of Mt. Fuji. However, precisely speaking, this mural painting is peculiar to the sento of eastern Japan, especially the Kanto region. Because a bathtub is often designed to be situated in the center of the bathroom of a sento in western Japan, in most cases the sento has no painted mural.

It is said that the painting of Mt. Fuji was born at 'Kikai-yu' (Kikai public bathhouse), located in Kanda, Sarugaku-cho, Tokyo. It started in 1912, when the master of 'Kikai-yu' asked Koshiro KAWAGOE, a painter, to draw a mural painting, and his mural received publicity. Subsequently there appeared a succession of sento, mainly in Tokyo and eastern Japan, and this generated the concept that the word 'sento' made people imagine the painted art. For painted art in the bathroom of women's bath, a train or a car, not Mt. Fuji, was often painted so as to please infants and children. As of 2001, only five paint artists existed in Kanto, so the continued existence of successors is threatened.

Incidentally, when renewing (in 2002) a background mural painting of a panoramic model train operation corner in the Transportation Museum (which was closed in May 2006), a row of mountains around Mt. Fuji was painted by an artist specializing in works for sento.

Tile art

A large tile bearing a baked-on picture painted in a beautiful, luxurious fashion is referred to as tile art. The tile art that is seen nationwide was traditional Kutani-yaki (Kutani ware) and was popularized by a pottery named 'Rineido' in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, from the prewar era. In order to decorate a large area such as a wall surface, a part of the picture drawn on each of more than two large-sized tiles constitutes one painting. Most designs drawn on smooth, white tiles are mainly themes of happiness and luxury, such as 'treasure ship,' 'carp rising and falling' and 'Seven Deities of Good Luck,' and some tiles are made by giving full play to the producer's technique at the same level as for art craftworks. Because they were high-grade articles, those tiles were often seen in sento in urban areas that had sufficient funds for equipment, and they drew many visitors.


Although the interior of the bathroom was originally built of wooden boards, ceramic tiles were preferred and adopted amid the preference for a modern atmosphere and, more importantly, cleanliness. Onsen (hot springs) in sightseeing resorts used tiles for the first time in Japan, and seemed to be influenced by the images of Roman baths. Many sento masters personally imported large numbers of foreign-made Majolica tiles, which were top-quality products during that period, and they took pride in their lavish bathrooms. It is possible to consider the use of tiles as far back as the prewar times, but the details can't be confirmed. In any case, the attractiveness of tile was convenient because it was sufficient to recover only a chipped portion.

Architectural style

Communal bathhouses resembling temples and shrines are seen nationwide. These communal bathhouses were mainly built in sightseeing and hot-spa areas where hot springs were located, and this architectural mannerism was adopted as an architectural style of the shrine-shaped sento established in Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake. This architectural style was mainly concentrated in the suburbs of Kanto, and few if any sento were built using this architectural style in the provinces. The birthplace of this shrine-shaped sento in the center of Tokyo was 'Kabuki-yu' (Kabuki public bathhouse) in Higashi-Mukojima, Sumida Ward. The architectural style under which 'karahafu' (cusped gable) (the curved eave in the center of the photo of Kodakara-yu at the start of the article) or a gable is attached at the front of the entrance of the building implies that it is "shrine-shaped."

A curve (at the upper end of the photo) of the recurved principal rafter is used to decorate a gable roof, reminding people of shrines and temples, or the tenshu (keep or tower) of a castle is a detail that proudly denotes religion and authority while having a symbolic feature showing the entrance leading to the Pure Land of Amitabha. This is different from the style of general and conventional architecture, but it also provides a glimpse at an extraordinary aspect. Given the fact that for ordinary people, who were main users of sento at that time, taking a trip to 'visit' temples and shrines in various regions in Japan such as 'a pilgrimage to Ise,' 'pilgrimage to Konpirasan,' 'pilgrimage to Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine,' etc., was the original purpose of visiting temples and was also an event or entertainment, shrine-shaped sento also functioned as attractions, thus leading to the eventual tradition of 'temple visiting' in later, less eventful days.

A bath is regarded to be the Pure Land of Amitabha in terms of washing away the dirt of human existence. This is assumed to be the reason that karahafu existed at the communal bathhouse.

Although large numbers of shrine-shaped sento of this kind were built in the suburbs of Kanto up until the period from 1965 to 1974, they became scarce because the home bath prevailed and many sento were remodeled for other uses. However, taking advantage of the recent retro-trendiness of a nostalgic longing for the "good old days," some properties have been remodeled into shrine-shaped sento.

The architectural style of the sento differs from one region to another, but it's common that many ideas are given to sento so as to add variety to daily life as a place for communication.

Gengabashi Onsen,' in Osaka's Ikuno Ward, is a rare sento building that's among the registered tangible cultural properties of the nation. It's a valuable building whose appearance and interior show signs of Showa modernism. However, Bishoen Onsen in Abeno Ward--also registered as a tangible cultural property--was closed in February 2008 due to the steeply rising fuel cost and the difficulty of anti-seismic reinforcement work. The designation as a cultural property was canceled, and it was demolished.


Each facility offers a different range of services, but generally speaking many facilities sell the soap and the essentials of bathing as well as milk, soda, juice and canned beer (some facilities) at the bandai or the front desk. A television set and weight scale are installed in the dressing room, and an electric fan, hair dryer and massage chair are available, although some facilities charge for their use. Some facilities have places for smoking, but many choose to keep such areas separate or totally ban smoking, in keeping with the times. For frequent users, discount coupon books are sold.

Some facilities hold traditional events based on ancient Japanese customs such as the hot citron bath, sweat-flat bath, etc., in keeping with the calendar, and some offer discounts or free services for children and the elderly. A recent example is that some facilities offer the service of 'experiencing taking a bath' as a school event at which to 'learn the meaning of relationship without dressing' (which also means a completely open relationship) and also as a local event, through the provision of opportunity for all children going to day nurseries, kindergarten and elementary schools to bathe together as a class.

Some facilities have a sauna bath besides a bathroom. Many sento in eastern Japan allow visitors to take a sauna bath at an extra charge of 200 to 300 yen, but many in western Japan don't charge extra. In order to distinguish visitors who pay a charge from those who don't, some facilities lease colored towels only for the sauna bath. In most cases, it's forbidden to bring magazines and newspapers into the sauna bath, in consideration of users' safety.

For the leisure-type sento (other public bathhouses not subject to the Public Bath House Act), which are actively constructed mainly in the suburbs, refer to the article on "Health Spa and Super Sento."

Days and hours of business operation

Formerly, the sento would be open from morning to early evening (around eight o'clock at night) in the Edo period, but today they're generally open from the afternoon or the evening to around midnight. Due to a recent decrease in the numbers of users, some sento have made arrangements with neighboring sento in regard to a regular closing day so as not to clash.

[Original Japanese]