Tattoos are still taboo when it comes to sento (communal bathhouse) culture in Japan. While they are seen as an expression of individuality in other parts of the world, Japanese society at large still equates this form of body art with the yakuza. Unless your tattoo is small enought obe concealed, chances are you'll be refused entry — except at these ink-friendly bathhouses.
Opened 60 years ago and recently renovated, Kugahara-yu sports a majestic Mt Fuji mosaic on its feature wall. The men’s and women’s sections are decorated with different colour schemes (representing the moon and the sun), but you’ll experience both as the bathhouse rotates the changing rooms every two weeks.
At Kugahara-yu, you can expect a spacious bath with massage jets, warm carbonated bath (from where you can watch TV), hot bath, cold bath, outdoor bath with black onsen water as well as steam and dry sauna. Despite its less than convenient location, the bathhouse is usually packed with families and kids – in part thanks to its 'junior days' when children enjoy special discounts.
This bathhouse first opened in Ginza in 1863, towards the end of the Edo period, and it hasn't made much effort to update its retro styling since. There's an old-fashioned reception desk on the way in, plus an impressive mural of Kutani porcelain tiles depicting carp, spring and autumn flowers and birds which you can enjoy while soaking in the tub. There are two baths, one pleasantly warm and the other heated to a fairly toasty 42°C. Twice a month they sprinkle flowers into the baths, so it's worth checking the website before you go.
Sento in Tokyo are famed for their Mt Fuji murals, but the ultra-modern Hisamatsu-yu takes it one step further by featuring a project mapping display instead, which you can marvel at while soaking in the natural hot spring bath. This remarkable concept was honoured with the Good Design Award back in 2015. An outdoor bath and sauna are also available.
Togoshi Ginza is a traditional bathhouse in a modern setting, and it’s very well equipped too: you’ll find a natural onsen and sauna, plus an open-air bath made from Japanese cypress. The interiors are adorned with two different drawings of Mt. Fuji, creating contrasting atmospheres on the two sides of the bathhouse. One is a traditional painting of the sacred mountain by veteran Japanese painter Nakajima Morio; the other is a more modern interpretation by graffiti-artist duo Gravityfree, depicting Mt Fuji and the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.
This public bath in Asakusa has been around since the Edo period and is hugely popular amongst locals. It is known for its signature black water bath, named ‘kuro-yu’ in Japanese, a naturally occurring mineral spring water that’s rich in humic acid. The dark water can help regulate your body temperature, to the extent that you’ll still feel warm even after you’ve stepped out of the bath.
The bathhouse’s traditional atmosphere is also a big draw, with a striking Mt Fuji mural spanning across both the male and female sections. If you come unprepared, just get the amenities kit (te-bura setto, including shampoo, soap and toothbrush) at the door for ¥150.
Located near Honjo-Azumabashi Station in Asakusa, Mikoku-yu underwent an extensive renovation in 2015. The semi open-air baths were increased in size; the property also installed tubs made from Japanese cypress while making its facilities accessible to disabled people. Best of all, Mikoku-yu offers family-style baths, where spacious bathrooms can be rented whole and enjoyed by those needing special care together with their families. Natural bathwater baths (or kuro-yu) are also available – and you can adjust the temperature to your liking.
Ten minutes’ walk away from Gakugei-daigaku station, this sento offers a variety of bathrooms on its first and second floors, and the male and female baths are switched on a daily basis. On the first floor there is a high-temperature sauna scented with Japanese cypress, while you’ll find a ‘salt sauna’ on the second floor, where the lower temperature melts the salt that’s spread over your skin. The facility also has an outdoor medicinal bath that incorporates herbs from around the world.
Yudonburi Sakae-yu in Minowa is known for its large and fully-equipped warm-bath facility, which was revamped and renovated just last year. You’ll be glad to know that they provide lockers and parking for cars and bikes. Best of all, there are three types of bath here – medicinal, jet and electric – plus a sauna, too.
This public bath has been in the same family for over 50 years, and is currently being run by the fifth head of the family. The large wall inside the bathhouse boasts a giant painting of Mt Fuji. The bath is spacious and has a shallow section, which is perfect for lying back and relaxing. Denjo-yu has an on-site well from which they draw their high quality water.
If you can’t get enough of this family-run sento, then why not try living with the owners for a while? Denjo-yu offers short-stay programs for young people and exchange students to experience traditional Japanese sento culture. In exchange for free accommodation and meals, you will help clean the sento every night, which gives you plenty of time to experience Tokyo during the day.