After a active day with sightseeing and shopping your feet may start begging you for a rest. What better way to relieve your fatigue than to take a relaxing soak at a Japanese bath house, a sento. In comparison to a onsen which is more like a resort, a sento is a simpler and more affordable way to take a bath in Japan. And while onsen uses hot springs for its baths, a sento uses a heater to warm its bath water.
Until the 70s most Japanese homes didn't have a bath tub, and visiting a sento was the daily routine for many Japanese. Often not only serving as a bathing facility but as a place where the neighborhood came together. Nowadays with bathtubs common in most homes, except very old buildings, the number of sento have been on a steady decline. But they can still be found most anywere in Japan, most easily spotted by their steaming chimneys.
As in most places in Japan you take your shoes off at the entrance. You will usually find small lockers where you can put your shoes in.
You then proceed to the counter where you pay the entrance fee and is handed a key to a locker in the changing room. If you haven't brought your own with you, here is also where you can rent towels or buy small soaps and shampoo bottles for a small fee. Some sento also have saunas in the bathing area, but requires a small extra fee for accessing.
Be careful not to enter the wrong changing room. The doorway to the changing rooms is often decorated with a noren, a Japanese fabric divider. The noren for the womens changing room is often red with the character 女 (woman), while the mens is usually blue with the character 男 (men).
Get undressed and put clothes in the locker corresponding to the key you got at the counter. Here is also where you will find the toilet, so if needed make sure to go before entering the bathing area.
Now finally entering the bathing area. But you can't enter the bathwater just yet. The most important rule of bathing in Japan is that you never enter the bath dirty. In Japan the bath is for enjoyment and relaxation not for cleaning.
At the entrance to the bathing area you will find personal washing stations. Usually with two taps for hot and cold water, a shower head, a small plastic stool and bucket. Use the taps to fill the bucket with water to your preferred temperature. Wash your body thoroughly and when done make sure to rinse off any remaining soap, as to not get any in the bathwater.
Now that you are all clean you can make your way to the baths. Remember the bath house is a place for relaxing so just like in a library, keep any talking as quietly as possible.