Japanese sentō (銭湯) is a kind of public bath house, much like the Roman baths, Nordic saunas or Turkish hammam. It’s no wonder that this communal bathing culture is practically universal when you consider the amazing spiritual and physical benefits that it provides. In the 12th century Saint Hildegard von Bingen wrote that those afflicted by mental troubles, “with a divided mind and crazy thoughts, should take a sauna bath.” The people of the far East were just as aware of the mentally soothing effects of such bathing practices, and achieved them with the Japanese sento.
Traditionally, the Japanese sento has been segregated with male and female bathing areas divided by a partition wall. The central bathing facility consists of a warm bath, large enough to accommodate many bathers at a time. There are often adjoining rooms with saunas or steam baths which are accompanied by plunge pools or cold baths like those in the West.
The Japanese sento isn’t just about cleanliness and relaxation. It’s also a place where emotional bonds are formed and cemented. The Japanese use such places to foster friendships and maintain a sense of community similar to the way the British used public baths here. If you are heavily tattooed then you may be refused entry to a Japanese sento because some have prohibitions intended to exclude the tattooed Japanese mafia known as the yakuza. Some Japanese sento refuse entry to foreigners because not all are able to observe the customs and etiquette proper to the Japanese people. Offensive behaviour includes not washing prior to bathing, using soap in the communal bath and generally messing about. If you are polite though, you would be well advised to enjoy a Japanese sento if you ever visit that country. If you’re stuck in London, you can come to a Spa Experience instead and enjoy the luxurious Thermal Spa Experience.