When Chihiro enters the mystical world of spirits, her encounter begins with a bathhouse. While this may seem strange in western cultures, it is hardly an anomaly in Japan. Bathhouses have been around Japan for centuries and are used for a variety of reasons. Bathhouses are often seen in anime as well from the recently released Yuragi-sou no Yuuna-san to the classic film, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). This staple in Japanese culture takes no break from being portrayed in anime and represents a rich history that has flowed through Japan for hundreds of years.
History of Bathhouses
Bathhouses in Japan are known as sento. The earliest reference to sento was in the twelfth century short story collection, Konjaku Monogatari. However, during this time, Buddhist temples would offer free steam baths to promote cleanliness. Sento would often charge for use of a bath in order to provide money for the upkeep of the bathhouse. They became especially abundant in the 1600s and appeared in almost every part of Edo. Public morality was threatened because sento would often mix men’s and women’s baths to save on having to have two separate facilities. The shogunate saw this as improper and believed that it threatened the peace of society and ultimately led to a ban on mixed bathing. While this was largely unsuccessful, a more successful ban was passed during the Meiji period that led to a permanent ban on mixed bathing. Sento were a place for social gathering and a place where people could maintain their cleanliness while not having their own personal bath in their house. Sento can still be found around Tokyo and throughout Japan for your present bathing needs.
The Bathhouse in Spirited Away
When Chihiro crosses the bridge and enters the bathhouse in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, she looks upon a beautiful structure that is the ultimate example of Japanese architecture. Since we can surmise that Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi takes place within the last 40 years based on the car in the beginning scene, this is a good example of what a bathhouse would have looked like. Sento adopted this architecture and moved away from being plain buildings like any other after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The spirits or customers of the sento in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi also pay a fee to access the baths as pictured with the bath tokens that Chihiro steals. The sento in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi is an accurate depiction of a bathhouse during this time period, a detail that Hayao Miyazaki most likely extensively researched before directing this film.
Sento are a common occurrence in anime and are an exciting scene, particularly in harem anime. However, they have a rich history that is not often recognized by its viewers that hopefully you have come to appreciate. We hope that this article has helped with your understanding of sento. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.