Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Memories of Japan: The Public Bath – O-sentō

Entrance to a bathhouse.  Notice the character
on the curtain.  These split curtains, by the
way, are called n
oren.  When hung in front of
a place of business, they often tell what is
sold inside or the name of the company.  Notice
also the shoes left in the entryway.

Today is Wednesday, January 15, 2014.

I didn't do much public bathing until after my divorce.  Every neighborhood has a pubic bath (sentō) for those who can't afford to buy a private bathtub.  (Many older apartments have no tub - you have to buy your own and have it installed when you move in.  Newer residences have tubs or showers, but many students still live in small apartments that have no bathing facilities.)  You generally bring your own washcloth, towel, and soap or shampoo, usually in a small plastic tub.  The cost is anywhere from ¥200-2,000, but in my opinion, for ¥2,000 you'd better expect something pretty luxurious, or someone is cheating you.  

In the past, the neighborhood sentō was a community gathering place, but the number of public bathhouses has decreased in recent years.  In the old days, many were mixed baths, but these days they are outnumbered by bathhouses with separate sections for men and women.  

Separate bathing for men on the left and women on
the right.  The character 男 means men and 女
means women.
The first thing that comes off are your shoes, which are left in the entrance, just inside the curtains with the distinctive hiragana character ゆ  (yu) which means hot water.  (They have another word for cold water: mizu みず.)  

At the entrance you pay your fee, then go to the left or right, for the women's or men's bath.  There is an area to undress and leave your clothing, then you take your towel, plastic bucket, soap and shampoo to a water faucet along one wall.  There are usually little plastic stools to sit on in front of each spigot.  These days, many places have handheld shower heads to make washing your hair and rinsing off that much easier. 

You rinse off and soap up your body, then rinse again. (That's what the little plastic pan is for, to help you rinse your body.)  Once you are thoroughly clean and rinsed, then you enter the tub. 

This public bath seems a little nicer than most traditional
ones.  Probably at an onsen hotel where soap and
shampoo are sometimes provided.  Notice the strip of
grating along the edge of the floor that hides the drains.
The tub may look like a swimming pool or it may be made to look like a natural pool or even a theme park.  But beware, because the water is incredibly hot.  Some women wear a towel around their body, which they call a "wrap towel," but be warned that a Japanese "wrap towel" will probably not go around your body if you are a foreigner.  Some women (and occasionally some men) wear swimming suits in the water, if it is allowed, and often it's not – but that sort of defeats the point of the bath, and you do have to be careful to rinse more thoroughly.   There are baths (especially at hot springs) where towels are not allowed in the water - there is generally a sign, if this is the case.)

Many people take a small hand towel or washcloth into the pool with them, mainly to keep the sweat from running into their eyes.  Once you're in the pool, it's OK, but moving too much will probably be a bit painful.  The water is really awfully hot!  There are rules against roudiness, although some splashing is inevitable with children. 

Baskets (not always this nice) are
provided for your clothes.  Theft is
just not an issue, so lockers are not
common in Japan.
Foreigners who have tattoos will need to be aware of the fact that in Japan, the Yakuza gambling and crime gangs have a tradition of tattooing their bodies.  For this reason, many establishments simply don't let anyone in who has a tattoo, even if it is small and in good taste.  If you have ink on your body, public bathing may be one of those experiences that you just have to cross off your list.

There are still 710 bathhouses in Tokyo, according to the Japan Sentō Associaion.   In Tokyo, the fee is ¥450 for those 12 and older, ¥180 for those 6 to 11, and ¥80 for children under 5.

Besides bathhouses, there are lots of hot springs (onsen 温泉), especially in the mountainous areas.  A typical onsen has an inn attached to it, and people travel to the onsen specifically to bathe.  Many guests never leave the inn where they are staying until just about time to go home, then they hurry up and buy souvenirs for themselves and friends.  While they are staying at the inn, they are given cotton yukatas (and jackets in winter) with slippers to wear anywhere around the inn.  It looks like everyone's wearing a bathrobe, but it's perfectly acceptable.  

In an onsen inn or hotel, you eat your dinner in your room or in a private dining room, but you may be bathing with others.  Mixed-sex pools are more common at hot springs than they are with neighborhood public baths.  Also, at an onsen, your bath may be outdoors, even in the winter.  That's where the hot water comes in really handy. 

I had several amusing experiences in mixed baths in Japan.  At one fancy place in the historic town of Shimoda, a group of foreigners that I was traveling with were staying at a cheap family-0wned inn (ryōkan).  Someone in the group knew the location of a really fancy inn that had an amazing public bath.  We all trooped to the inn, walked right in and went to the bath. This was about 4 p.m., a time when the baths normally just open.  This particular bath was located in a room that had an entrance on an upper floor, but the bath was on a lower floor.  They had put a hill of dirt to simulate a mountain path going down, with lush vegetation growing on the hill.  We bypassed the dressing rooms at the entrance and all went down the hill single-file wearing our shoes and street clothes, confident that nobody would be in the bath yet. 

We were wrong.

There was one Japanese guy there, who was buck naked except for a little white washcloth.  He had just finished his bath and was walking up the hill again to the dressing rooms.  The poor guy was defenseless.  Blushing, he made his way past us with as much dignity as he could muster.  

Onsen baths often look very natural, even if they're not.
Then there was the time that my Japanese-American girlfriend and I went to the public bath in our neighborhood.  We got naked and scouted around for two spigots next to one another.  We found them in the far corner.  Looking neither to the right nor to the left, we rushed to claim the spigots before anyone else got there, because we wanted to stay together.  My friend was sitting on my left, and a Japanese gentleman was sitting to my right.  We were all buck-naked, you understand.  

Each faucet had spigots for hot and cold water, and you had to mix them just right.  Unfortunately, my cold water spigot jammed, and I couldn't turn it off.  Neither could my girlfriend.  The man on my right, noticing my distress, calmly reached over and shut off the cold water.  I thanked him and he said, "You're welcome."  

Other than feeling really, really "stared at," everyone was very polite and the rest of the experience went OK.

Another time, a group of people I was with were at an onsen that you had to go up to, because it was higher up the mountain.  We rode in a funicular car, which is like a train car that is mounted on a steep incline.  This particular train car looked like an enclosed set of stairs – that's how steep the incline was.  

One bath that I went to in the mountains around Nikko was a sulfur bath, and it turned our towels from home a nasty yellow color.  The water was supposed to be good for our skin, but it made mine itch.

At one onsen, the bath was outdoors and I was with an American couple who had two teenaged sons.  The teenagers both spoke Japanese and were comfortable in Japan, but neither one wanted to get naked in the pool, even though all the adults in the group were.  They wore cutoff jeans, and I remember teasing the older one that hot water makes jeans shrink.  

I'm glad that I didn't let my natural prudishness prevent me from having these experiences in Japan.  Otherwise, what would I have written about today?  :-)

No comments: