Stepping out among the well-heeled denizens of Omotesando is enough to make even the most well-kempt cheapo feel a little grubby. Luckily, there’s a well-placed sento just steps from the station—a pretty public bath where you can get spiffy for less than the cost of a medium latte in most of the area cafes.
Sentos are public bathhouses, and unlike onsen, these do not use hot spring water, but rather the good old municipal water system. These bathhouses are a holdover from when many people did not have bathrooms in their houses—a condition that still persists in some of the older parts of town and cheaper apartment complexes. Sento prices are regulated and the going rate in Tokyo is 460 yen (regular sentos are allowed to charge less, but not more, than this price).
Stashed in an alley behind an ostentatious Porsche dealership, Shimizu-yu is only three minutes from the A4 exit of Omotesando Station and has recently been remodeled with a shiny new face for area bathers. Customers take off shoes in the entryway and put them in a locker, then purchase a bath ticket at a machine just inside the doors. Entry is 460 yen for adults, 180 yen for middle school students, and 80 yen for elementary school children. Children under six are free, with up to two kids per adult permitted. You can also buy other things in this machine, like beers and BVDs, so be sure to press the 460 yen button up at the top. Sentos also do not typically provide towels for free, so bring your own, or buy or rent one here as well.
At the counter, bathers exchange their bath ticket and shoe key for a regular locker key and head into the sex-segregated bathing areas—red for women and blue for men. Unfortunately, tattooed patrons are not allowed at this sento. If yours is small enough to cover unobtrusively with a bandage, you could give it a go, but otherwise, it’s best to check out one of the tattoo-friendly bathing spots.
The locker rooms have about 50 lockers, a restroom, a drink vending machine, and a few hair drying stations that take ten yen coins. It’s clean but utilitarian, yet in a nice and somewhat unusual touch, there’s some relaxing jazz playing overhead—think Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith era, not smooth jazz.
After stripping bare, bathers step into the shower area. There are about 20 shower stalls with gleaming marble, tile, and fixtures; though clean, some sentos look as though they haven’t been changed in 50 years. This one is decidedly modern. There is complimentary body soap and shampoo here, or you can bring your toiletries or buy some at the front.
In the bath area there’s the requisite dipper and basin of warm water for giving yourself a first dousing, and the big bath bubbles invitingly with several jets—from the mild “relax” jet to the no-nonsense body jet, which gives a thorough pummeling from the back and sides. Getting so thoroughly owned by a mechanical masseuse feels almost indecent surrounded by so many naked people, but nobody seems to notice. This part alone is is worth every yenny and is way cheaper than a massage out on the avenue.
A small back room holds a couple of mineral baths—a “silky herb” bath that includes carbon dioxide and microbubbles that treat the skin, sort of like sitting in a glass of fizzy drink. There are also a couple of nice rain shower heads, imported from Germany, a sauna, which requires paying an extra charge (of about 600 yen), and for a nice refreshing shock, a cold plunge bath good for “tightening the skin.”
In the common area are several tables to unwind, with a few vending machines including the omnipresent milk machine.
After a good polishing, bathers are fresh-faced in the heart of fancy-stepping out onto Aoyama-dori or Omotesando pink and scrubbed and glowing, for less than a fiver. Nobody needs to know that you didn’t just come from an expensive spa treatment—it can be our secret.
Shimizu-yu is open from 12:00 pm to 12:00 am on weekdays, and 12:00 pm to 11:00 pm on weekends and holidays, with last entry 30 minutes before close. There’s a coin laundry in the basement incidentally run by the same company, so you can clean your clothes AND yourself if you’re so inclined.