Tokyo's best public baths

Tokyo's best public baths

Traditional Japanese public baths are disappearing from Tokyo, but these two stalwarts are keeping the tradition alive … may you boil in peace
Japanese public baths
Japanese public baths
Japanese public baths
Japanese public baths
The bath art at Shimizu-yu includes an unexpected tile mosaic depicting a European lake town beneath the prerequisite image of Mount Fuji.

Despite a long, proud heritage and cultish fan base, the number of Japanese public baths ('sento' in Japanese, literally 'hot water for coins') has been dwindling in Tokyo in recent years. Because most apartments are now built with deep bathtubs, the need for ritual public bathing has practically been eliminated.

But two longstanding Japanese public baths in Tokyo are keeping sento culture alive by maintaining modern standards of hygiene while preserving the unique atmosphere of a national tradition now almost-forgotten.

1. Shimizu-Yu: On the west side of Tokyo

If the Japanese public bath Shimizu-Yu in Sangenjaya were any more authentic it'd be a museum. Thick mineral deposits line the two main baths, rusty hinges hang from old wooden lockers and the small zen gardens -- a koi pond on the men's side, a turtle pond on the women's -- are crowded with decades of overgrowth. Despite this antiquated feel, all bathing surfaces and public areas are kept immaculate.

Run by the Ito family since 1922, the proprietors keep Shimizu-Yu's bathwater at a temperature precisely described as 'very very hot.'Once adjusted to the heat of the burbling, steaming waters, however, bathers quickly lose themselves in slow chatter with elderly regulars, contemplation of a towering Mt. Fuji mural and unexpected insight into the ordeal of lobsters in cooking pots.

Shimizu-Yu: Taishido 5-28-5, Setagaya-ku, tel. 03 3414 4964. 2:30-11pm, Sangenjaya subway station

2. Daikoku-Yu: On the east side of Tokyo

Though Daikoku-Yu in Kita-Senju feels like a newer, less lived-in version of Shimizu-Yu, it's every bit as atmospheric. With a beautiful wooden ceiling and four baths, including an outdoor rotenburo bathing area, this Tokyo public bath remains, against prevailing cultural odds, extremely popular with locals. It consistently appears in the pages of “1010," a magazine dedicated to the cult of sento.

Despite the widespread notoriety of this Japanese public bath, Daikoku-Yu hasn't lost any of its local charm. Don’t be surprised to see your friendly neighborhood yakuza mobster covered neck to ankle in tattoos wincing as he slides into the near-scalding water next to you.

Daikoku-Yu: 32-6 Senju Kotobuki-cho, Adachi-ku, tel. 03 3881 3001, 3-12pm, ¥400 (extra ¥400 to enter sauna), Kita-Senju subway station.

Sento culture

For the uninitiated, Japanese public baths offer a more DIY experience than onsen hot springs. Few give away free soap, shampoo or towels, though most Tokyo public baths, including the two discussed in this article, sell these and other personal items at the front desk. Most patrons just bring their own items.

All bathers must shower before entering the baths. But the biggie for protocol-minded old-timers -- no sento experience is complete until it ends with a glass of milk.