I recently re-watched Love Live! and Yama no Susume, and both shows have a similar scene: several girls are bathing together and chatting, and one of them makes a dramatic statement, punctuated by standing up in the bath, to shocked reactions and (in YnS) embarrassment by the girl. This seemed odd to me, since obviously they were already naked before they got in the bath, but it also made me curious about what kind of etiquette exists for Japanese communal baths in real life and how friends and strangers normally behave around each other.
Japanese public bathhouses, or sento, are kind of a dying thing in Japan. They date back from an era where not everybody had hot running water at home, or their own private bath. Such housing is increasingly rare these days — people usually just bathe at home like Westerners do — so there’s far less need to go to a public bath. Many of them have closed.
But public baths are both a very traditional Japanese thing, as well as an easy way for manga artists and show creators to get to show their characters naked and frolicking together. And so, much like hot springs and trips to the beach, it’s something we get to see an awful lot of.
Basically, when you go to a bath house, you pay a small entrance fee, and if you didn’t bring your own towels, you can buy one there. Most people bring their own toiletries, and some bath houses let regular customers store them there. You take your shoes off before entering the changing area — usually there’s a separate foot locker. Then you get completely naked and put your clothes in a locker, and then go to the shower area — usually a seated shower with stools to sit on while you scrub yourself. Once in the bathing area, you generally only bring a small towel to cover yourself with — and many people don’t really bother too much with it. If you’re with friends or family, you might offer or receive a back scrub or a quick shoulder rub. Some people bring a rough exfoliant sponge to scrub off their dead skin, other bathing stuff like pumice stones.
Once you’re entirely clean and rinsed off, only THEN is it OK to enter the baths. This is important because other people will be sharing that water, and it will likely only get changed once or twice a day. (Don’t worry, they do use a small amount of chlorine.) Many bath houses have a few different pools of different temperatures, but most keep them pretty darn hot. They’re to be used as a hot tub — a relaxing soak rather than a place to get clean.
Since people are there to relax and unwind, basically any kind of splashing, outright swimming, or loud noises is frowned upon. Usually the only people that get away with things like that are little kids. (Some bath houses have dealt with foreigners roughhousing in the baths and have decided to ban them all.) Also, some bath houses, particularly private ones, do not allow people with tattoos, especially prominent ones. This is a way of banning yakuza members without actually having to put up a sign that says “no yakuza allowed” — a surefire way of getting yourself into trouble.
Also, it’s easy to get over-heated and light-headed in the hot tub, especially if you’ve been drinking. (And even though it can be dangerous, a lot of people do mix sake and hot tubs.) Once out of the bath, you need to rehydrate, and a lot of people in Japan like doing so with ice cold milk. I personally don’t get it, but they find it refreshing.
Generally, people in public baths are not shy, either about their nudity or about commenting on the bodies’ of their friends. From what I’ve heard, this is especially true on the women’s side of the bath house. But anime prefers to show their girls being shy and coquettish, hence the reactions you’re seeing to bold displays of body parts. I suppose some people might actually act like that, but generally after going to a sento once or twice, you tend to get over your shyness. And it is SUPER relaxing.
These days, many of the remaining sento are trying to appeal to a younger crowd by emphasizing their tradition, or by offering spa services like massages and fitness centers. Some even turn into entertainment complexes, with restaurants and karaoke. These are extremely similar to Korean saunas, or Jjimjjilbang, which offer various themed saunas and spa services, and have even become somewhat popular among non-Koreans in Los Angeles.
I’m sure sento will never die out entirely, but they are definitely no longer a daily part of life for most people in Japan.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He’s the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.