Reading the Daily Yomiuri over breakfast this morning (I am in Tokyo this week) I came across some distressing news: the number of sento in Tokyo has fallen below 1,000! The exact number as of today – everything is tracked and recorded in Japan – is 999.
Sento are public baths (literally: “penny baths”, sen = penny; to = bath). Most people are familar with the Japanese onsen, the natural water hot springs so popular with tourists and locals. Sento are the ugly step-sisters of onsen. They are spread around the city and comprise of a small changing room with tiny lockers, a few shower stalls (the sitting type, of course) and the hot bath itself. All of the sento today are separated, unlike in the old days when everybody soaked together. They are not easy to spot as usually the entrance is very small with nothing but a small sign saying yu (hot water) over a blue-curtained noren.
Back in the times when most houses in Tokyo were not equipped with running hot water, sento was the way to keep clean. Even today, it is not uncommon in certain neighbourhoods to see people making their way to the sento at the end of the working day. However, with the more hectic life style of Tokyoites and the availability of higher-end spas and health centres, onsen are gradually washing away, yet another sign of the changing face of Japan.