Beginnings of Sento
A lot of people from various cultures have felt that bathing cleans more than just their bodies; there is also a feeling of cleansing your mind and soul. This is no coincidence, since bathing rituals in various shapes are present in many religions – from Christian baptisms to ritual baths in the Ganges river. In Japan as well, the origins of bathing are both ritual and religious coming from Buddhism practices, but water is also a common purifier in Shinto myths. In time, the idea of bathing spread with noblemen constructing private baths in their homes during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The invention of “mushiburo” or “steam bath” in caves at the same time, and popularizing communal bathing for the masses culminated in the vibrant sento culture of the Edo period. The first sento was recorded in 1591, just a year after Tokugawa Ieyasu who would become Shogun later entered the city of Edo (old Tokyo).
Sento in the Edo period (1603-1868) spread so much that it’s apparent in many writings from the time that even the poorest people could afford to go at least once a day. Cleanliness became a great value of the society and it was noted and praised by many foreign visitors at the time who wrote travel diaries, stories, and reports on Edo. What some of the more puritanical visitors criticized in sento culture was the lack of segregation of genders in the bathing space. Very often the changing room and bathing room in Edo sento bath houses were not clearly separated, merging in a single area. Some sento owners imposed different bathing hours for men and women, some declared men-only bath houses and rarely woman-only one, while others tried to separate female and male baths by a very low simple board partition. Even the Tokugawa Shogunate tried to regulate or outright outlaw the mixed bathing several times as customer interaction grew into fraternizing that the Edo Bakufu government deemed immoral.
Although it was very common and natural for men, women and children to bathe naked together at first, the changing services of the ‘bath ladies’ or ‘yuna’ brought the immoral element that the Tokugawa Shogunate and religious missionaries disliked. The services of ‘yuna’ were just sento related at first, helping with washing backs and fetching water. This job was later relegated to ‘sansuke’ later, which were exclusively young men. However, a custom emerged of closing sentos in the afternoon and admitting only certain customers who paid extra to be entertained by the ‘bath ladies’. These women now changed into fancier clothes, played shamisen, and eventually retired to the second floor with customers. The Edo Bakufu first tried to limit the number of ‘yuna’ per onsen, but when they were unsuccessful they ended up completely banning ‘yuna’ in 1657 and many of them moved to the Yoshiwara red light district of the time. Sentos in the rich Yamanote area retained the second floor and used it for drinking tea, playing shogi and socializing, but the two-story structures eventually disappeared in the Meiji era.
FROM EDO SENTO TO TOKYO SENTO
The Edo sento differs from sento today because of changes made during and after the Meiji period (1868-1912). The Edo sento was smaller, darker and steamier, but the rules and steps of cleaning yourself and the feeling of community and interacting in the common spaces stayed the same to this day. People with sento-related jobs like the bandai (receptionist) and the sansuke and yuna (male and female sento assistant, respectively) have disappeared today, but the variety of baths and convenience have increased. During the transition from Edo period to Meiji period, sentos lost their second floor common space and genders became strictly segregated, and that’s the sento of Tokyo today.
The New and Improved Sento
The Tokyo sento compared to the Edo sento grew bigger, more spacious, with higher walls and ceilings and more open space. The partition between male and female baths grew taller, and windows were installed to actually let the steam out. The steam baths became a different type of bath offered along with the hot water baths, together with saunas, bubble baths, electricity baths, jacuzzi jets, silky water baths and so on. The bigger the sento the more options there are. Some sentos even have a ‘rotenburo’ – an open air bath outside in the garden, something a lot of people associate more with the onsen bath houses.
Of course, with the improvement of overall technology and general modernization, in the Taisho era sentos became tiled and thus easier to clean, and with the new water system it became easier to fill the baths and heat the water. They simply and truthfully called them ‘the improved bath’. During the Showa period showers started being installed in sentos and baths in people’s private houses. In the 1960s in Tokyo there were as many as 2687 sentos, but their popularity and the numbers of sentos decreased over the years as the private baths at home became more widespread and more convenient.
At the time of writing this article it is estimated that the current number of sentos is between 600 and 700, and yet the sentos survive in the modern era because they still offer something more than just bathing – cleansing, relaxation and a sense of community. A sento offers a feeling at the end of the day that we are all only humans after all and we are together.
In Disappearing Treasures: Sento, a Public Bathhouse you can find out why the number of sentos is going down.