Weird History
1.8k readers

What Were Japanese Bath Houses Really Like?

Updated January 29, 2020 1.8k views12 items

The act of bathing is an important part of Japanese culture, and bath houses date back centuries. Thought to be a purification process as well as a health-promoting way to cleanse the body of dirt and grime, bathing in natural hot springs (onsen) or at public bath houses (sento) was an important ritual in everyday life. Although myths about feudal Japan may imply that many people in the past, especially common folk, were always dirty, people of all social classes bathed daily.

Sento were local establishments where locals or foreign visitors could bathe in communal tubs or steam rooms. Since having a tub at home was rare, bath houses served a large number of people. Japanese citizens also made use of onsen for a more relaxing bathing experience outdoors. Depending on where they lived, however, they may have needed to travel to visit an onsen, while sento were manmade structures that could be built anywhere, and were thus more accessible for many. Sento provided not only a local bathing facility, but also a gathering spot for locals to meet and bond with other members of their community. In the 1960s, there were more than 2,000 sento around Japan, but as more people built baths in their homes, sento prevalence declined.

There are still public bath houses in Japan today, and while they may provide a more modern experience, the Japanese culture of bathing would not exist without their Edo-era predecessors.

  • The First Bath Houses Allowed Mixed Bathing, Despite Concerns

    Since allowing men and women to bathe in the same facilities required less room and effort to keep them separated, many sento owners allowed mixed bathing to save money. Not all sento worked this way, however, and some were designated as men-only. Unfortunately, women seeking to bathe in privacy didn't have as many options available, as there were only a few women-only bath houses. Although people considered many bath houses to be mixed gender, many owners created separate changing rooms and used partitions to block bathers' views of the other gender.

    As foreign visitors, mostly from the West, began using bath houses during their travels, they shared their views about mixed bathing being indecent. This influence and the growing popularity of yuna, who acted as escorts in sento, led the Japanese government to ban mixed bathing outright. Despite this ruling, many people in Edo ignored it.

  • Bath House Workers Would Wash Customers' Backs For Them

    In order to keep things running smoothly, sento employed people to fetch firewood and water. Many customers also requested the services of workers to wash their backs for them. At first, women called called yuna, or "bath ladies," did this work, but when the government banned mixed bathing, they outlawed yuna as well. Young men known as sansuke took over the daily bath house tasks from yuna.

    Despite the ban on mixed bathing, sansuke performed back-washing duties for both male and female customers. Back washing entailed finding a water temperature the customer liked, washing them using a sponge, and then gently pouring water over the person to remove the soap. Sansuke followed the bath with a shoulder massage while the customer sat in the same spot. The process took about 10 minutes and added a relaxing element to getting clean.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Yuna Were Temporarily Introduced As ‘Bath Ladies’ Who Waited On And Entertained High-Paying Customers

    When sento first became common, establishments employed women known as yuna to help things run smoothly. They performed daily duties such as carrying water and tending to customers. At first, yuna carried out customer service in platonic ways, but their interaction eventually included washing customers' hair and backs. After the government banned mixed bathing, sansuke replaced yuna at taking care of customers' cleaning needs, and yuna moved on to perform other duties.

    These special duties included playing shamisen and displaying themselves in fancy dress. Yuna also acted as escorts in bath houses, bringing customers who wanted something more than a bath to the second floor for special treatment. The government tried to intervene and eventually managed to ban yuna from sento in 1657, leading many yuna to relocate to the Yoshiwara red light district.

  • In Addition To Bathing, Customers Socialized With Their Community

    Although they began as a place to clean one's body, sento soon developed into a place for community members to socialize. Many sento became important parts of neighborhoods where locals gathered to complain, gossip, or make new acquaintances. Customers occasionally became so relaxed that they got together to drink, sing, and eat after their bath.

    Not only did this socialization help communities grow stronger as people got to know their neighbors more intimately, but it also helped people to break out of their social bubbles by meeting people with whom they might not otherwise interact. For many people, the socialization was the most important part of the bath house experience - even more so than the bath itself.