Different location – different sento culture
This time I have left Tokyo and have travelled to Kansai (western Japan), which is the birthplace of the more than one thousand year old sento culture, to look at the traditional sento(1) there.
In Kyoto, there are quite a lot of machiyazukuri(2) sento remaining, which were not burned by the flames of war. When I open the door to the entrance hall, which is divided into one door for men and one for women, I am surprised to enter a hard-packed earthen floored room. I am now faced by the bandai(3) and the undressed world of the changing room.
In Osaka, like Kanto (eastern Japan), there is a shoe box room in front of the changing room. The datsuikago(4) in Osaka are rectangular (a lot of them are made of plastic these days), and differ from Kanto’s round-shaped ones, and customers place their clothes in these on the floor or simply place their clothes in the clothes locker. On the other hand, in Kyoto they put these wicker baskets, which have a number or a regular customer’s shop name on them in the locker. As there does not seem to be any craftsman left who can repair these wicker baskets, they have become a valuable cultural heritage.
With regard to the bathtub in Kyoto, it is made of concrete and both the exterior and interior are decorated with small tiles. In many cases the tubs are located along the wall dividing the men’s and women’s bathrooms. There is also a small medicated hot water tub located against the back wall. On the other hand, in Osaka there are quite many cases where the bathtub is made of granite and is located in the middle of the bathroom. There is a step around the outside of the tub where people can sit; so some sit there and scoop hot water from the bathtub with a pail, making themselves at home. The floor is also granite and is agreeable to the touch. There are still some sento which have water butts which people use when they dash cold water over their bodies before leaving the bathroom. In Kyoto, as there is plenty of groundwater, people can enjoy heated natural water.
In Kanto a sento usually comes with a painted wall picture. In Kansai you seldom see this; mosaic tiled pictures can sometimes be seen, but they are usually in the changing room, decorating the entrance to the bathroom. However, decorative patterns using colourful tiles are a highlight of sento in Kansai.
The structure of the building, the shape or design of the noren(5), the rattan mat in the changing room, the washing pail, the cold water bath, the post-bath drink, the sento name and washing conventions; these and many more puzzling differences can be identified from region to region among sento. So, why don’t you enjoy not only the local food, but also experience the interaction with local people at the sento?
Text and photographs: Akira Fuse
Translation: Yoshie Hutchinson, Language Volunteer Co-talk (LVC)
(1)Sento – originally a public bathouse for people that did not have a bath at home
(2)Machiyazukuri – traditional style of wooden townhouse for which Kyoto is famous
(3)Bandai – traditional stand to collect the entrance fee and watch the changing room. Larger establishments will generally have a front desk instead
(4)Datsuikago – a bathroom clothes basket
(5)Noren – a traditional business curtain at the entrance to a sento