Communal bathing in Japan
For most people in Japan, a quick shower is often just not good enough. Gotta have a long, hot soak in a deep tub up to the neck. This is pretty much the rule in Japan, where people have been enthusiastic bathers for many centuries. In the early days, only the elite could actually afford bathing facilities, so public baths became well established. Early on, the system was: wash thoroughly outside the tub, then enter the communal tub for soaking, warming and relaxing.
I like getting clean as much as anyone else, but the idea of soaking with strangers doesn't appeal to most Americans. When I first came to Japan, so many years ago, I rented a tiny room with no bath, so I had to make a daily trip to the local sento--public bath. The first night I arrived, I was so tired, I just went right to bed. The next day, I was ready to get clean, but going to the sento for the first time was pretty daunting. A French guy living across the hall offered to go and show me the ropes.
The first task is to choose the right entrance, for men or women. Usually, these are notated with kanji--and I was completely at a loss. However, Daniel showed me which one was the men's. Before entering, you remove your shoes and put them in a shoe locker. The building was a traditional one, with a high coffered ceiling. This space was divided by a wall that was well over head height, although it did not go all the way to the ceiling. There was an elevated desk, kind of like a pulpit, near the doorways, where one person could keep an eye on both the women's and men's areas. This is also where you pay the entrance fee. I was surprised to find a woman on duty there. In the locker area, there was a block of lockers about chest height, so I was able to hide behind them while I took off my clothes. Large sliding glass doors led into the bath area.
As baths go, it was very nice. The soaking tub was very large, the width of the room, with a contoured front. Sentos are known for large murals on the back wall, above the soaking tub--this one had a view of Mt. Fuji, a very common subject for bath houses. And, this establishment had large rocks/boulders worked into the tub, so you could lean against a warm rock to relax.
But first, get clean. There were rows of shower heads, but at waist height, intended to be used while sitting. There were tiny stools and buckets. Soap and shampoo were the bather's responsibility, although such supplies, as well as razors, pumice stones, washcloths and towels were on sale. The shower rows also had mirrors, so you could shave sitting down under the shower. So, I got all clean and headed for the tub.
There is one bathing custom Daniel didn't tell me about. Most Japanese people take a small towel, about the size of a US dish towel, into the bathing area. It is used for washing, and then strategically deployed to the most crucial area(s) for modesty when moving around. I didn't have such a towel with me, but I figured it was like the locker room in high school. Only wusses worried about such things! Okay, ready for the hot bath!
But it was really, really hot! I noticed there was a thermometer on the wall that said 42 degrees C. (Fahrenheiters, do the calculation!) Anyway, hot enough to induce a strong blush to the skin. So, I was sitting on the thick edge of the tub, legs in the hot water, facing the thermometer and looking up at the mural of Mt. Fuji. I noticed a sliding door next to the thermometer, and I noticed it was sliding open. There was the woman from the entrance desk!! She pretended to be checking the temperature, but she took a certain amount of time directing her gaze to the thermometer, giving her plenty of time to check me out! Well, a lot of Japanese are curious about such things, it's true. I probably did not live up to her stereotype of westerners...sigh. But I had my first experience of relaxed Japanese attitudes toward nudity--sometimes there is some mixing of the sexes, in varying degrees. More about that later!
The photo shows a traditional style bath house--you may be able to see the craftsmanship in the construction. This is called Akebono no Yu in the Asakusa area. A cold drink from the machine is very refreshing after a hot dip. This place is also notable for the extensive planting--is it wistaria?
Also, check here for photos of a typical bath house interior, complete with Mt Fuji on the back wall--in tile instead of paint. You can also see the sit-down shower heads, each with its own mirror.
This blog has good info on hot springs and sentos, even some about overseas destinations!