by Ewa Nowogorski
The average foreigner may be aware that Japan is a country where strangers bathe together side by side completely naked and just get on without minding each other. They may also be aware that this kind of activity takes place at a designated location called an onsen, and they are not incorrect. But what they may not be aware of is that Japan actually has two kinds of public bathing places: the onsen and the sento.
An onsen, as firstly mentioned, is a hot spring that has been centered around a natural spring, bringing in hot spring water to fuel the baths. It is typically seen as a resort sort of location, and this is where foreigners visiting Japan usually go. The onsen usually offers both indoor and outdoor baths, has a restaurant, massage services, and a relaxation room with massage chairs and blankets for people wishing to take a nap. The cost of using the onsen is usually around $10-12 USD for free time.
A sento, or public bath house, is a little less extravagant. Sento are made with one purpose in mind: keeping the Japanese masses clean. These originated hundreds of years ago because old Japanese homes were not equipped with bathing facilities. A sento was also a place where you could connect with your community and have a relaxed chat with your neighbors while you bathed. Sento usually do not use spring water, and instead use tap water or underground water. There is also no outdoor bath, and inside the bathing room you will always see a mural of Mt. Fuji. Sento are also much cheaper than onsen, with a fixed cost in Tokyo of 480 yen. No matter which sento you go to within Tokyo, the cost will always be the same. This is to ensure that even impoverished people have access to bathin, because Japan has a culture that places high value on hygiene and cleanliness.
For Japanese people, onsen is kind of like a tourist destination to go to when they are on vacation and away from their hometown, and sento are the local place to go to when you just want to clean yourself and relax.