Onsen vs Sento ・ The Public Baths of Japan, and What Makes Each Kind Special
Japan's Communal Baths
Pictured Above: Nasu Onsen
Sento & Onsen ・ What's the difference?
Pictured Above: Hakone Kowakien Yunessun
Most onsen use modern plumbing of one sort or another to get the water into the baths, which means that once you're inside, sento and onsen can look exactly alike. But to qualify as an onsen, the water must come from an underground source, bubbling up as warm mineral water or even natural steam. In addition, it needs to meet at least one of two qualifications: either the onsen emerges from the ground naturally heated to at least 25°C (77°F), or the water contains a significant amount of natural additives from a designated list - including minerals, various ions, or even radon. Of course, most onsen qualify on both accounts, with water bursting from the earth luxuriously hot, full of natural additions that people will say can cure all sorts of ailments.
Onsen usually rely on the quality of the unaltered natural hot spring water to attract bathers, but sento, on the other hand, often spice things up by offering tubs with all kinds of unique additions. "Kusuri-yu" (薬湯) baths take advantage of Japan's kampo (漢方) medicine culture, which evolved from traditional Chinese medicine, and a variety of natural therapeutic ingredients are added to the water. Around the winter solstice, some bathhouses will even offer baths with yuzu fruit floating in the tubs, a traditional way to welcome the new season with a refreshing aroma.
Pictured Above: Ashinomaki Onsen
See the Difference for Yourself
Dogo Onsen Honkan (道後温泉本館)
5-6 Dogoyunomachi, Matsuyama, Ehime
Official Website (en)
To get a feel for sento culture, there's no better place than Tokyo's Shitamachi area, the eastern portion of Tokyo that has been home to mostly working-class Tokyoites since the days when samurai walked the streets. The area's history has produced an everyday bathhouse culture, and many older residents still make a visit to the local sento a nightly habit, preferring to soak in the huge, steaming tubs instead of run their own baths at home. In recent years, local Adachi-ward sento Takara-yu found new and unexpected popularity after being featured in an advertisement with popular actress Satomi Ishihara (seen in Shin Godzilla), but it still retains all the trappings of a classic sento. The bathhouse has rows of bathing stations complete with low plastic stools, retro peachy-hued tile, a kusuri-yu with a Buddhist mural, and paintings of Mt. Fuji seen on the walls over the baths - almost a requisite part of the sento experience!
Takara-yu Sento (タカラ湯)
27-1 Senju Motomachi, Adachi City, Tokyo
Hours: 15:00 - 23:30 (closed Fridays)
Official Website (jp)
Onsen or Sento?
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