how to use a sento, japanese bath house

What is a Sento?

Sento, or Japanese public bathhouses, are dotted across towns and cities throughout Japan. Subsidized by the government, they are small facilities, split into changing and bathing areas separated by gender, often run by older people.

Sento are great for people with tattoos. In the past, when bathhouses first appeared, they were classed as public services, and it was accepted that even yakuza needed to bathe. Though they aren’t public establishments anymore, according to sento ambassador, Stephanie Crohin, it is a common misconception that most sento ban tattooed guests. Based on her experience, the vast majority of places are tattoo-friendly.

By nature, bathhouses are simply large baths, but some go even further. They might have jet baths and saunas, while others even use hot spring water, essentially making them an onsen. These bathhouses are neighborhood hubs, opening mid-afternoon and closing around midnight. They are an excellent gathering place for local folk. However, being such community centers, there are many unspoken rules, which can be quite confusing. Below we will look at some sento etiquette to follow. First, though, we’ll focus on the interior of a typical bathhouse.

how to use a sento, japanese bath house manners

What Does a Sento Look Like?

The entrance of the sento has lockers for you to put your shoes in, before you head to the cashier or the vending machine. The cashier is usually sat behind a desk either in front of you, or slightly above in older bathhouses. All sento are separated into male and female sections, with the entrance of each marked by a short noren curtain. The curtain is often colored in stereotypical gender colors, or else red and blue, the former for females.

Behind the noren you’ll find the changing area, containing lockers for you to put your things in. After stripping down naked, it’s then time to enter the bathing room. This always has both a sit-down showering section and at least one bath, sometimes more. It’s very important to shower first. We will explain why below.

sento bathhouse tokyo changing room datsuijo

How to Use the Sento

A step-by-step guide to bathhouse use.

1. Enter the Bathhouse

First, take your shoes off. Put them in the shoebox or a locker provided. Take the locker key and hold onto it.

2. Pay

In a bathhouse, you pay before you enter. Depending on the facility, you’ll pay at either the vending machine or straight to a staff member. Sometimes they will ask for your shoe locker key as a deposit, so it’s good to have this on hand, just in case.

Vending Machine Type

Put in your money, select the option you want and get the ticket. Swap the ticket with the staff and head into the bath.

Non-vending Machine Type

If the facility doesn’t have a vending machine at which to pay, simply pay directly to a staff member.

3. Change

Changing facilities are separated depending on gender, so make sure you enter the right one. Once you’ve done that, find a locker and get changed. Get undressed right down to your birthday suit and shut everything in the locker, except your towel and toiletries. Put the face towel or normal towel on one of the shelves outside the bathing area, for easy access to dry yourself once you get out.

4. Clean your Body

Before getting into the bath itself, you have to make sure you’re clean. You don’t want to be bathing in other people’s grease, right? It goes both ways. Sit down at a shower station on a stool — there might be one there already, or else you can grab one from the pile.

5. Bathe

If you’ve ended up in a place with lots of different baths, there’s no specific order, it’s up to you. Enjoy however you want.

6. Rinse and out

Once you’ve had your fill of the bathing facilities, give yourself a final rinse in the showers.

7. Drying

To avoid the floor getting slippery and dangerous, bathhouses often have shelves at the entrance to the bathing area. If you’ve followed our third step, you’ll have your towel there already. Dry your body, including your feet, lightly before going back to your locker. Once you’re back, dry off and get dressed. There will be dryers available (often charging a nominal fee) for you to use.

8. Pack your things and head out

Grab all your things and leave the facility. Often, there will be a small waiting area, so you can wait for your partner or friends of the opposite sex. There may be refreshments on offer, too. An ice-cold milk, juice, or beer all taste much better after a hot bath.

how to use a sento, japanese bath house manners

Dos and Don’ts

There are more “dos” than “don’ts.”

Before Paying

  • Don’t go in on your period. Nobody likes a free-bleeder in the bath. Mooncups, inserted correctly, are fine. Think of it as a swimming pool.
  • Make sure you have enough cash, as many sento don’t accept card.
  • Don’t worry if you forget your towel. If you have your own one, that’s great, but if you haven’t brought one, you can check the vending machine. There should be a “borrow a towel” option. If there isn’t a button to borrow a towel, ask the staff if they can lend you one.
  • Decide if you want to use the sauna before you pay. Often, if there is a sauna, it will cost extra — payable in advance. Those who take up that option should receive a towel or a special locker key. Sometimes the sauna will be locked, only to be opened with a special key that you’ll receive after paying a fee.

In the Bathing Area

  • Leave your phone inside your locker.
  • Keep your locker key with you at all times. While you’re bathing, tie it around your wrist, hair or ankle.
  • While you’re washing, be careful not to splash other bathers. You can use the bucket provided, to dowse your body.
  • Make sure to put everything back where you got it from.
  • Feel free to greet other bathers. Sometimes this will lead to a heart-warming conversation. A simple “konnichiwa” or “atsuidesune” should do it.
  • Try out the cold water bath. Make sure you get in slowly.
  • Speak quietly. The bathhouse is a place to relax, so make sure that you use your inside voice when speaking.
  • Check if there’s an outside bath. If there is, try it out. Bathing in the open air while looking at the sky is truly special.
  • Don’t worry if someone is staring at you. If you’re obviously non-Japanese, it does happen, and it feels weird, but often it isn’t malicious. Rather than leave feeling awkward, smile and acknowledge them. More often than not, they’re just curious. If you go to a newer sento, this is less likely to happen.


Sento are great places to get a feel for Japanese daily life. A community hub, you’ll find everyone here, from old grandmas having a chin-wag, to mothers and babies, and even teenagers visiting a bathhouse without their parents for the first time. For anyone with tattoos, sento are a godsend, enjoyable by all without fear of prejudice. If you’re lucky, you might even find one with some natural hot springs, too.

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