A lot of the items in a Japanese public bathhouse or sento have very specific names that are usually left untranslated. Instead of translation, they are best understood through explanations. Below, we delve into the history and meaning of:
Nukabukuro is a body scrubbing tool, with a similar purpose of a today’s loofah sponge. It is really a ‘bukuro’ or a bag filled with rice bran and it has exfoliating properties. In the past it was mostly used by women in the sento. Nukabukuro are being sold even today, of course with some new designs.
A male bathhouse assistant to both male and female sento-goers in charge of preparing buckets of rinsing water, scrubbing customers’ backs and taking care of the waiting list. Sansuke replaced ‘yuna’ girls who originally had this job, but after some time they also started giving sexual services and that prompted the authorities at the time to ban them. Sansuke were paid well and had a high position in the sento, previously having gone through responsibilities such as maintaining bath temperature. Today there are no sansuke in the sento.
Tenugui is a narrow and long Japanese cotton cloth mainly used as a towel, washcloth, or dishcloth, It can also be used as a decoration, as wrapping, and a headband etc. Tenugui always have some kind of design or pattern and new designs keep coming out, often featuring pop culture elements. There is a revival of buying and selling tenugui, as they also make very good souvenirs and gifts.
Zakuroguchi, meaning “pomegranate entrance”, is an entrance to the bath area at a typical Edo style sento. Actually, the sento that a lot of Japanese people know and believe to be traditional is slightly changed from the Meiji period. This entrance was very low in order to leave the least open space possible so that the heat of the water and the steam don’t escape. In the Meiji period the bath became open, the walls and ceilings became high and there were even windows to let the steam escape, hence the zakuroguchi disappeared.
Tomeoke can have two meanings. Firstly a private oval oke bucket that you use to pour water on yourself in the sento. That water is for rinsing yourself after scrubbing your body.
Secondly in the past, oke buckets that richer families would pay extra money to the sento to keep them aside only for their private use.
This is the clean water used to rinse yourself after scrubbing, scooped up by the oke bucket. This was the last step before you could enter the sento bath.
The space dividing the male and female bath. The person overlooking the male and female bath area from a high chair that site between. This person is works as a receptionist and cashier. In the past all sentos had a bandai person, but now it has been replaced by a reception desk at the entrance of the sentos. However, even nowadays small sentos with a bandai person remain, although they’re extremely rare.
This versatile cloth can transform in many things and it has been a convenient item in the life of every Japanese person since the Nara period. It has several sizes, from small to extra large and it can be made of various fabrics like silk, cotton, and polyester. Depending on how you tie it, it can become a great gift wrap, a sturdy bag, a backpack, a bento bag, or a bottle carrier. You can even transport a whole watermelon in a neatly tied furoshiki! But the ‘furo’ in ‘furoshiki’ stuck because one of its uses is carrying all your bathing supplies. Furoshiki have many designs and you can even wear them as accessories or use them as decoration. There are also various ways to tie them, from simpler to intricate ones. Above all, this magical shape shifting cloth is not only stylish and convenient, but also eco-friendly because it is reusable and it renders plastic bags unnecessary.
Lastly, you can read our interview with an official sento ambassador –
Why I Love Sento: Interview with Stephanie Crohin
If you decide to visit a sento, why not start with….
- Mikoku yu ©_stephaniemelanie
A designer’s sento in Sumida that adds modern Japanese design elements and a luxurious feel. Right in the heart of old Edo and from some parts of the sento TOKYO SKYTREE can be seen.
Address: 3-30-8, Ishiwara, Sumida, Tokyo 130-0011
Closed on Mon., next day of holiday
This retro sento in Nippori can conjure up nostalgic feelings with its art.
Address: 3-22-3, Higashi-Nippori, Arakawa, Tokyo 116-0014
Closed on Mon.
This sento in Mitaka has a nostalgic feel, but also a lot of different baths and even open air baths in a garden.
Address: 2-4-31, Iguchi, Mitaka, Tokyo 181-0011
Open: Mon. to Fri. 15:30-23:30
Sat. Sun. Holiday 13:00-23:30
Last entry: 23:00