So you’ve spent an exhausting day in Tokyo? Mortified at being the typical tourist? Just follow me and we’ll take a bath together, along with my friend Stéphanie. She’s become the ambassador for sento – public bathhouses – so we’ll let her choose a good one for us.
Jordy: Hi Stéphanie! So, you’re taking us along?
Stéphanie: Hi Jordy! Today I’ll share with you a small Tokyo paradise: Takara-yu, known as The King of Garden. This sento has several massage and aromatic baths with a beautiful mural of Mount Fuji. It also has a fine view of a Japanese garden. Unluckily for me, only the men’s side has direct access to the garden from the baths.
Jordy: Why did you visit a sento in the first place?
Stéphanie: I had the chance to spend a year as an exchange student at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University. A friend suggested we go to the nearby sento after class.
Jordy: A roundabout way of getting to see you naked? Isn’t it too weird the first time?
Stéphanie: At first, like everybody else I think, I felt a little embarrassed for the first five minutes, as in France we’re not really in the habit of stripping off in front of strangers. But as nobody pays the slightest attention I soon relaxed and could then discover what was to become my daily ritual.
Jordy: Come on, let’s go in! Is there anything we ought to know about this entrance? It seems rather like going into someone’s home.
Stéphanie: That’s partly true because it’s often families who run them. You take off your shoes at the door just like at home! You then put them in one of the little lockers and keep the wooden key.
Jordy: Are all sento the same price in Japan? I undress in the changing room and then I go into the bathhouse? Any useful hints?
Stéphanie: In Tokyo the price is ¥460 but it varies depending on the region. Nothing special, except you should dry yourself off a bit before returning to the changing room after the bath to avoid wetting everything.
The interior of Takara-yu is superb! But maybe better not stand there stark naked gazing around like a fish out of water. There’s just a wall between me and Stéphanie but everything is in the same space.
Jordy: Magnificent design and setting. And there’s Mount Fuji in the background!
Stéphanie: It’s lovely isn’t it? Only three painters in Japan specialize in this unique artform (more info here: Sento Mural Art).
Jordy: Hey, Stéphanie, do I jump straight into the water or what? These taps are kind of unusual – do I just use the shower nozzle or is there something else I should know?
Stéphanie: You take a stool and a basin from the entrance to the bathhouse, then choose a shower space and wash yourself thoroughly before going into the baths. The shower water is hot and at your feet are two taps to mix whatever temperature you want into the basin. When you’re in the hot tub a small basin of cold water can help too.
Stéphanie’s pedantic, don’t you think? Only joking. After I’ve had a good wash I step into the pool. Surprise surprise! It’s burning hot!
Jordy: It’s really hot! Is it always as hot as this? No way of throwing in a bucket of ice or running some cold water in? Or would that be naughty?
Stéphanie: The temperature of the baths varies – for hot tubs 39 to 47 degrees. There are also warm or cold baths.
Jordy: Onsen (hot spring) water is naturally warm (and often mixed with cold water). But here, how do they heat it? It must cost a small fortune…
Stéphanie: The traditional heating fuel is wood, but many sento also use gas or a heat pump. And yes, it’s very expensive…
Jordy: You’ve got the answer to everything! You’ve become a real sento obsessive. What do you like so much about sento?
Stéphanie: In the first place I’ve always enjoyed looking after myself and the pleasure of a hot tub. My friend and I went to this sento every week and enjoyed the benefits of the different pools (aromatic hot bath, electricified bath, cold bath and sauna), and we also took the chance to use body and hair care treatments. Another thing that I really appreciate in the sento is the easy communication.
Jordy dabbles in the water while Stéphanie tirelessly discusses her passion…
Stéphanie: The sento are often full of locals who go there several times a week or even every day. So it’s a kind of community and people are usually pretty friendly. I often talk to strangers I’ve met in the baths. When I travel outside Tokyo it’s also a great way to discover interesting little places more popular with locals than tourists. I often ask people I meet there to recommend a restaurant or something.
Jordy: It seems to me that the social side is the great attraction of sento (and onsen). Even without me speaking Japanese, people come up to me quite naturally. And when exactly did you fall in love with sento? Right at the start?
Stéphanie: After my university year in Japan I lived in France for a few years and then in Djibouti before life brought me back to Tokyo again, three and a half I did of course go back to my favourite place that quickly became a second home (the sento of student days) but I began to explore Tokyo sento in particular, finding that they were all different.
The two guys below are charming and they speak French.
Jordy: You visit a lot of sento, right?
Stéphanie: At the moment I go to about five a week. I don’t remember exactly how many I’ve visited but for around two years I’ve collected the stamps from each of them (there’s a booklet for ‘collecting’ Tokyo sento stamps like there is for temples). So far I’ve reached 200, and I also use sento outside Tokyo whenever I get the chance.
Jordy: By the way, you’re welcome to visit my sento at Nara. It’s really ancient and the old lady who works there always comes to see me to check if I’ve got everything I need …! How did you get to be an ambassador?
Stéphanie: Little by little, thanks to roaming round all the sento, I was curious to find out more about, and while getting to know many sento owners, I made a small library of books on sento. At the time I also started to write and share sento ‘reviews’ on Instagram (#dokodemosento). The sento magazine 1010 interviewed me, which was the first step I think. Shortly afterwards Tokyo city hall contacted me to sit on the Tokyo Sento Committee. It’s a mission for which five people are selected every two years. As I’ve also started freelance writing, I decided to start the Tokyo Sento blog and various other activities. My work has been increasingly recognized and the Tokyo sento headquarters offered me the role of ambassador.
Think there’s any way I could become a cat or haikyo ambassador?
Jordy: And you’re the only person doing this? The first?
Stéphanie: No, I have an ambassador companion who was taken on at the same time as me. He’s professional boxer Kimura Yu-san, WBC light flyweight champion. I’d already met the sento ambassador of Mie prefecture but we’re obviously the first to have this broader title.
Jordy: What an adventure! At the same time it’s really well deserved – for me you’ve became the sento icon! On the other hand, looking on the black side, there’s also the sad truth that two pages are dedicated to sento in my new book Abandoned Japan! Because ultimately there’s fewer and fewer of them and many have been abandoned.
Stéphanie: That’s right, sadly. Moreover, one of the Sento Committee’s tasks is to think about their future. Ten years ago, there were more than 2,000 in Tokyo. Today, there are about 630 of them.
As it happens I’ve written an article on the subject of an abandoned sento visited with Stéphanie and the owner. It’s on my haikyo website here: Tsuru No Yu. Sad? So here’s a simple solution. When in Tokyo take a bath, foreign visitors are welcome!
Jordy: If friends or family come to visit me in Japan, what would you suggest they should do with you to accompany them?
Stéphanie: Sento aren’t always easy to find and often people who aren’t used to them don’t really dare go in. I always adapt the choice of sento to the people I’m going to guide. Some things I take into account are the location, the facilities offered by the sento, the temperature of the baths and the design. It’s a very relaxing way of discovering Japanese culture. So I recommend it to everybody, but it’s also excellent after a day’s sightseeing or to recover from jet lag.
Jordy: A kiss and a final word?
Stéphanie: I hope many of you will come and discover my little Tokyo pleasures. And be sure to contact me if you need a personalized tour! You’ll find sento articles and more photos in my Tokyo Sento blog. Feel free to comment or ask questions, I’m sure Stéphanie will respond. If you’re visiting Tokyo one day, finish off in style with one or two good sento with Stéphanie. It’s definitely an experience worth having.
[bs_notification type=”info” dismissible=”false”]Address : Senju Motomachi 27-1, Adachi-ku
Open: Every day from 15.00 to 23.30, closed Monday.