Japanese people love taking a bath and the habit has been a part of Japanese culture. When they really want to relax and unwind from the stress of daily lives, they occasionally go to public baths – “onsen” and “sento.” The difference between the two may be confusing for foreigners.
“Onsen” means a hot spring. At an “onsen” spot, a hot water is always taken from a natural hot spring. Most of “sento”, on the other hand, use tap water heated by boilers. “Sento” means a paid public bath in general.
Locations of the two tend to be varied. Many of “onsen” are located in rural areas adjacent to active volcanoes. Visitors often stay overnight to fully enjoy hot springs at traditional Japanese inns. “Sento” can be built anywhere by installing water heating boilers and other necessary facilities.
Their historical backgrounds should also be noted. “Sento” dates back to as early as the Heian Period. In earlier days, it was the norm that ordinary people didn’t own baths at their home. They frequently visited their favorite “sento” in the neighborhood. Some of the most traditional “sento” buildings look like a temple with a big tiled roof. An old-fashioned store curtain “noren” is hanged at their entrances.
The fee systems are different, too. “Sento” fees are uniformly set by each prefecture, ranging from 350 yen to 460 yen for adults. “Onsen” fees vary depending on each operator and they are usually more expensive.
Trips to “onsen” resorts remain popular, but visitors to “sento” are on the decline. Public “sento” baths have been steadily decreasing in number as most of all houses and apartments now have bathtubs and showers. For example, the number of “sento” in Tokyo fell to 706 in 2013 from a post-war peak of 2,687 in 1968, according to Tokyo Sento Association.
In the face of the difficult circumstances, developers have built another kind of “sento” called “super sento”, which is installed with a variety of additional facilities including open-air baths, saunas, steam baths and jacuzzi tubs.
Depending on the purposes to enjoy taking a bath, people can choose either one for their freshness.
Learn Japanese History
Learn Japanese Culture