For the Japanese, there is nothing more natural than sitting butt-naked with total strangers and having a good old scrub down before relaxing in a steaming hot bath. For Westerners, the whole concept may seem bizarre, confronting or just plain hilarious, but it really is worthwhile trying to put these perceptions to one side and allowing yourself to unabashedly take the plunge.
There are dozens of sento in Tokyo. Unlike onsen, which take advantage of surrounding natural springs, sento have to rely on tap water to fill their tubs. Some add herbs and other natural additives to enhance your bathing experience.
Visiting a sento for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience, but follow a few simple rules and you’ll feel like a local in no time:
1. Always remove your shoes upon arrival.
2. Get a ticket from the vending machine – a member of staff will normally be able to assist you with this. They will also take your ticket and show you into the appropriate section (male or female).
3. Remove your clothes and place them in a locker. You will be provided with a yukata (gown) and a scrubbing cloth.
4. Make your way (naked) to the washing section (identified by the rows of taps, shower heads, stools and washing bowls).
5. Have a thorough scrub down. It is important that you be squeaky clean before you enter the bath(s).
6. Rinse yourself with the washing bowl and make sure all the suds you have created are also rinsed away.
7. Enter the bath. There may be a few baths of differing temperatures (usually ranging from warm to burning).
8. Kick back, relax and enjoy!
Remember: the locals are comfortable in their own skin and so should you be! Most Tokyoites are well used to gaijin (foreigners) and will give you a polite disregard, but if anyone does show an interest they are most likely observing how you differ from them physically as opposed to looking at you with a critical eye.