|Topics in Japan #79:
Sento─communal bathhouses where people meet and communicate
As it gets colder, many people begin to long for a nice, warm bath. In Japan, there are not only baths in the home but also sento, or communal bathhouses. Each sento has two big rooms that separate men and women. People are required to wash themselves first, and then they can bathe in a big bathtub to relax and sometimes communicate with other bathers.
Bathing in Japan is said to have originated in the Nara period, or during the 8th century. Buddhist teachings said that bathing could expel evil and bring in happiness, so some temples had bathing rooms for people to bathe themselves. The very first communal baths are said to have emerged during the 12th century, and from then on they grew more and more popular.
By the 18th century, sentos were loved by people as places not only for bathing but also as places for communicating with others. Then during the 20th century, sentos were modernized and some sentos began to have saunas, bubble baths, massage services, and so on. However, at the same time, home baths rapidly became popular and fewer people had need for sentos. In Tokyo, there were about 2,700 sentos at the most in 1968, but as of 2009, there are only 900 sentos left.
While some traditional sentos have had to close, other sentos are trying to preserve the sento culture as well as do something new to bring in more customers. Some sentos produce their own, design-conscious bathing goods, while others make the most of their "venues" and host events such as rakugo (traditional Japanese comic monologue performances), small concerts or yoga lessons. Although the sento may be changing its form a little, it may always remain a place for people to meet and communicate with others.