By Joshua Furr
Whether you’re clean or dirty, a dip in one of Niigata’s sento, or public bathhouses, is always a welcomed experience! Ubiquitous, nostalgic and, at less than 500 yen (about $4) for admission, they’re incredibly affordable. Here are 6 Snow Country sento that are guaranteed to heat you up, especially when your pipes are frozen at home!
Ask anyone in Niigata about bathhouses and it’s a guarantee that you’ll get an earful about Chiyono-yu, the oldest sento in Niigata. Founded in 1931, this warm and traditional spot is the antithesis of the modern “super sento“, without a shred of pretension. Waiting inside of a modest yellow building in the Nuttari district is the 8th generation owner, who happily greets guests to either ultra-sonic, micro bubble or medicated baths. Unfortunately, as of this writing, Chiyonoyu is temporarily closed, but with some assistance and support from the community, its water can again soothe the weary bones of those who happen to wander in.
4-12-3 Nuttari, Chuo Ward, Niigata City
Asahi-yu is a favorite among locals and visitors. Located 15 minutes from Niigata Station, this back alley bathhouse is a trip through time to the Shōwa period with a red neon sign drawing you in like a moth to a flame. Separated by gender, the men’s bathing hall is decorated with a beautiful portrayal of Mt. Fuji, while the changing room is chock full of manga for fans of all ages. The hot relaxing water is gentle, which can also be said of the management who are known to generously give out free soap and towels from time-to-time.
10-18 Kasugacho, Chuo Ward, Niigata City
Midori-yu is another renowned sento within the vicinity of Niigata Station. It can easily be located with its coral colored walls and green roofing, like a multi-storied 7-11. A deep round bath sits in the center of the hall, surrounded by (another) tranquil Mt. Fuji setting with a tile partition separating the men and women. Unlike other sento, the body soap, shampoo and conditioner are all complementary and leave you feeling better than when you arrived.
2-8-1 Yoneyama, Chuo Ward, Niigata City
Komatsu-yu may be a bit off the beaten path in the Yamanoshita district of Higashi Ward, but it’s an experience that is well worth the trip. Founded in 1956, a clean and sleek interior invites you further into its tiled halls, where an old-style bath with soft firewood-heated water waits. However, the bath is only one satisfying element at Komatsu. Management occasionally accommodates guests with rice balls and side dishes, while vending machines sell beer and refreshments. To top it off, the sento is known for its trademark feline friends who, while rarely seen patrolling the baths, give the entire establishment a different layer of enjoyment.
2-3722-12 Akiba-dori, Higashi Ward, Niigata City
Izumi-yu is another retro-style sento in Chuo Ward, about a 5-minute walk from Hakusan Park. This bathhouse is located in a prime location to accommodate the needs of athletes sweating it out at Niigata Stadium, or those just looking to warm up while sightseeing at Hakusan Shrine. The small comfortable interior maintains a Shōwa-like atmosphere with intricately-placed tiles and customary bath hall paintings with European motifs. According to the locals, Izumi-yu’s water is decidedly hotter than most bathhouses in Niigata, which works to its credit as bathing at high temperatures better relieves ailing joints and is guaranteed to kill every possible germ you may have picked up along the way.
2 Bancho-179 Honchodori, Chuo Ward, Niigata City
While last but certainly not the least on our list, Kin-no-yu is the youngest public bathhouse in Niigata. Built in 1961, it holds the record as the last sento to have been built and thus maintains a treasured place in the community. It is a relatively progressive and unique sento in that it boasts not only an open-air bath for men, but a specialized salt sauna for women. Moreover, it seems to be an attractive option for parents who wish to show their children some Shōwa-period charm as kids bathe free on weekends. For years, the signature chimney could be seen and recognized by Higashi Ward’s residents, but unfortunately, due to a change in heating methods, it has since been removed.
3-1-16 Nakayama, Higashi Ward, Niigata City