Sento a nostalgic world behind the noren curtains!-1

Japanese sento (public baths) are a bit unusual. They are places for people to wash themselves, yet the buildings and bathing areas are cleverly designed to the point bathers feel as if they have slipped into samurai-era Japan. Lately sento have garnered attention as places to experience working-class Japanese culture.
Sento were essential to the daily lives of Japanese commoners starting in the 17th century, when the country was still the domain of samurai warriors. People washed away the stress of the day and forged deeper bonds with their neighbors in sento. However, bathtubs in homes became more common in the 1960s, and the number of sento plummeted. Kyoto boasted nearly 600 sento in 1955; now there are only around 110. Fortunately, sento have recently begun to be cherished as special places where people can experience not only traditional Japanese culture, but also the culture of ordinary people.

Sanjiro Minato jumped headfirst into the world of sento management when he opened UMEYU in May 2015 at the ripe age of 24. “Kyoto sento are special because each one is distinct from the others,” Mr. Minato said. “The diversity of the tile murals in the bathing areas is particularly surprising.” The bathing area at UMEYU features a large fountain. Also within the complex, you will find figurines such as the welcoming cats, and the monkey enjoying a bath. Other decorative art created by local artists rounds out the scene. This atmosphere of odds and ends is one of the unique characteristics of UMEYU. Mr. Minato knows that his love of sento is just as unique. He started a sento lovers’ association during his university days and traveled to sento throughout Japan on his bicycle. When he heard UMEYU was to be closed down, he felt compelled to keep it open.


It was then that he heard from Yann Le Gal, a painter who had relocated to Kyoto from France. “Foreigners are a bit embarrassed in sento at first, but they eventually come to love them,” Mr. Le Gal said. “The architecture is very Japanese, with a very subtle beauty. And most of all, they meet good people there. They are great places to interact with locals. Public baths exist outside Japan, but the connection between people is not the same. Sento are communities like parks and cultural centers, but they are quirky.”

Mr. Minato continued the conversation: “Various people come to sento, and every one of them leaves smiling. Running one is not easy in any respect, but I can’t help but think of how great sento are when I see those smiles.” The absolute best way to understand the appeal of sento is to visit one!

  • Sanjiro Minato
    Born in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka in 1990. Owner of UMEYU in the Gojo area of Kyoto. He first came to Kyoto as a university student. While studying, he founded an association for people who enjoy sento and visited each and every one of the 180-odd sento that existed in Kyoto Prefecture when he started.

  • Yann Le Gal
    A painter born in Saint Ouen, France in 1973. At age 25 in 1999, he became the youngest-ever recipient of the Renoir Foundation Award. He came to Japan in 2012 and opened a studio in the Nishijin neighborhood of Kyoto. His many Kyoto-themed works include Kyoto Portraits 100 and others are featured in the Kyoto Sento Art Festival.


    TEL: 080-2523-0626
    ADDRESS: 175 Iwataki-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
    OPEN: 3:30pm-11pm
    CLOSED: Thu.
    COST: ¥430
    SMOKING: No (Outdoor smoking area)

    WiFi: Yes

    5-minute walk from Kawaramachi-shomen bus stop (board a city bus from Kyoto Station).
    10-minute walk from Keihan Kiyomizu-Gojo Station.

The information is current as of November 2015.