5 Don’ts of the Sento

Written on February 3, 2010 by Wouter

When trying new things for the first time, many things can go wrong. We’ve all had that experience. Generally we would just muddle our way through and learn from the experience. Experience is usually the best teacher, so by all means, muddle. Just a few things to keep in mind when you start muddling in a sento near you:

  1. DON’T take any of those handy little baskets with various types of soaps and shampoos you will often find on or under the locker bank at your small neighborhood sento. They all belong to regular bathers. My first sento experience was with a friend at a super sento. At super sento’s soap and shampoo is generally provided in the washing area. When I ventured out on my first small neighborhood sento visit I wasn’t aware I should bring my own soap and shampoo, and when I saw those baskets with soap sitting around I assumed they were there to be used by whoever wanted to use them. Observation of the behavior of the locals quickly taught me otherwise.
  2. DON’T walk into the wrong changing room. Every sento has separate entrances to the male and female changing rooms, only marked in Japanese. The first time I went bathing I didn’t know any Japanese. As I mentioned, fortunately I was with a friend who guided me through the experience. When I went out by myself for the first time I remembered there were two entrances, but I had no idea which one to take. The only thing that I could do to prevent an unfortunate mistake was wait outside until somebody would enter or leave. After I came back home I immediately looked up the Japanese for male (男) and female (女).
  3. DON’T go in with your tattoos exposed. Tats are generally associate with yakuza, the Japanese mafia. If your tattoo is up-cover-able with a band-aid or water-resistant skin-colored sticker of some sort, cover it before you go.
  4. DON’T put any dirty or soapy body parts or your small washing towel in the bath water. The bath water is obviously shared, and just like you wouldn’t want to sit in the soap of others, others don’t like to sit in your soap. Additionally, make sure to wash and rinse yourself thoroughly in the washing area before entering the baths.
  5. DON’T be shy! The public bathing experience can be very relaxing for soar muscles and a stressed brain. Whether you’ve been teaching English to smelly businessmen the whole day, labored in a factory or crammed 200 kanji in an hour, relaxing=recovering. The whole nudity thing regularly keeps people from going to a sento, but everybody has the same (or similar, perhaps smaller) body parts you do, so no need to be shy.

All of the above I have learned through experience, and I’m sure there are many more experiences out there. Please be kind to me and this website, and share any additions you might have to this list in the comment section.

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