A soak in a sento (public bathhouse) doesn’t make many tourists’ to-do lists, but Stephanie Crohin aims to change all that. As Japan’s first-ever sento ambassador and a journalist, she’s spreading the word on the joys of communal bathing.
When did you first come to Tokyo and what made you choose Japan as your new home?
I studied Japanese literature as an exchange student at Rikkyo University in 2008. After going back to my home country for my master’s degree and working a few years in other countries, I was recruited by a company in Japan.
What made you first fall in love with sento?
During my student days at Rikkyo, my friend asked me to come along to a sento for a project. So we went to Myoho-yu in Ikebukuro, and I just loved it so much that I started going there weekly. It was a little embarrassing to be naked for the first time, but everything there, the relaxing time and being part of the community, captured my heart.
When I came back to work in Tokyo, sento naturally came to mind as a way to relieve fatigue and stress. Remembering those warm feelings of comfort, I started going to sento again every week.
Last year, you became the Japan Sento Culture Association’s first-ever sento ambassador. What exactly does this job entail?
To put it simply, my mission is to tell more and more people in the world about sento. I disseminate information through my website and social media, by holding events and so on. There are three main things I focus on: the effects of bathing, the local community culture, and art.
Visiting a sento is like going to an exhibition. Every sento has a different aesthetic based on each owner’s ideas and preferences. For example, in Kagoshima rather than Mount Fuji, you will often see Sakurajima, the prefecture’s symbolic volcano, painted on the wall. And in Oshiage, near Tokyo Skytree, there’s a sento that exhibits photos of the famous tower on its walls.
How has your year as ambassador been, and what are you planning to achieve in the coming year?
Actually, before my assignment, I had already worked on promoting sento culture to the world – through writing, social media and visiting as many sento as possible. So becoming an ambassador didn’t really change my life, it just made my work official. I will just keep working hard to make sure sento are on every tourist’s list of things to do in Japan, and will keep visiting more and more sento around Japan.
What part of the sento experience do you most want to share with tourists?
I really would like people to know that sento are where you can directly interact with the local community. Inside sento, there are literally no barriers between locals and visitors.
Unlike many hot spring facilities, local sento don’t prohibit tattoos. Hence, everyone is welcome, and I would recommend talking with locals there as sometimes they’ll point you to their favourite neighbourhood spots. Also, I would like to recommend sento bathing as a cure for jet lag, it really works!
When did you first feel like a Tokyoite?
When I was able to guide people around Tokyo! Needless to say, I can immediately recommend sento near each person’s neighbourhood. Moreover, since I love strolling around the city, I know lovely cafés, restaurants and shops that you can’t find in travel guidebooks – all that info comes from locals I met at sento.
What’s your favourite aspect of Japanese culture?
I like Japan’s culture of art, literature and, of course, bathing. I recommend talking to locals, but since many Japanese are naturally shy, it can sometimes be difficult. My advice is to remember your greetings – konnichiwa, arigato, sayonara – wherever you visit. It reduces tension and makes communication easier.