The Japan sento experience

posted in: Itchee Links | 4

I have been going through some old travel writing, and thought I’d post some… He’s one from my time in Japan.

The woman at the door looked surprised to see me. She eyed me suspiciously as she handed me my change, as though I had some ulterior motive for entering her establishment. She paused for a moment, looked me up and down, and then pointed me in the direction of the women’s area. I walked off, unsure whether her pause was habitual or if she was really trying to work out whether I was male or female. She probably wasn’t used to geijin using the sento and seeing as we all look alike it was no doubt a challenge to work out which room best suited me.

I had been in Japan for three years and visited the local bathhouse regularly. Although my apartment had a bathroom, complete with soaking tub, the local sento was still a place I enjoyed visiting. I loved the whole ritual. The walk to the bathhouse holding my towel and bath bag; finding a locker and removing my clothes, entering the shower room with nothing but my soaps and body brush. And then scrubbing and scrubbing, washing and rinsing, ignoring the stares my naked western body provoked. And then to the hot tub to soak. It had taken me over two years to be able to immerse my body in the blistering water. Each visit another body part was submerged, my face grimacing in pain, much to the amusement of the other women. But now I was able to soak and I understood even more what a visit to the sento was about. It was more than showering. More than just getting clean. Even more than relaxing after a hectic Tokyo day. It was an art. And like all Japanese art forms it was the subtleties that created the beauty. The stillness. Slipping into the scalding tub and allowing stillness to take over. There was great beauty in that. Much peace and satisfaction derived from it.

I found a locker and slipped off my dress. My skin was damp from the humidity. I stashed everything into the locker and smiled, as I always did at this point, wondering where to put my key. Although I had never been to this particular sento before, I did what I always did and popped it on top of the locker. An invitation for a thief anywhere else but Japan.

There were four other women in the shower room. They all looked up as I entered, then with a look of shock turned away. The glare of my white skin, I thought. I picked up a small wooden stool and walked over to one of the showers, and turned the water on letting the full force of it hit me. I sighed, unintentionally, causing the others to glance my way.

I had been through the whole scenario before. I had discovered that it was best to ignore them until they got used to me. When they saw for themselves that being a westerner didn’t automatically mean I would sprout a second head and start singing verses from the old testament to the tune of Waltzing Matilda… although some geijin have been known to do this and it’s usually a sign that it’s time to leave Japan.

My first ever visit to a sento was in Chiba prefecture with my friend Lynne. We had been in Japan for a few months and had heard the clip clop of the gato as people made their way to the bathhouse. Lynne decided it was something we needed to experience, to help us acclimatise to our new home. I wasn’t too sure. I had no urge to get my kit off and bathe with a bunch of woman. Couldn’t we just study ikebana?

But Lynne was keen and so I went along for the ride. Off we went, her enthusiasm rubbing off on me so by the time we arrived you’d swear I was about to sky dive for the first time, not wash my privates in public.

It was a great experience. Better than great. It was magical. That day I experienced the human body in a new light. Mine and others. The women at that sento had no shame. They didn’t hide any parts of their body, nor did they flaunt them in any way. In a country were modesty is highly valued these women were completely at ease without it. It was as though they left their public persona in the locker room, along with their clothes (and locker key…).

Lynne and I were surrounded by six old women, and believe me, I mean old. Wow, I never knew the human body aged like that. They giggled and chattered at us, giggling more when they realised we couldn’t understand them. They followed a trail of my freckles around my body, cackling in amazement. They turned us around and had a good look at different parts of our anatomy before sitting us down and washing our hair. We just stared in amusement at each other as our own team of the golden girls scrubbed our long blonde locks. And would you believe it, as we left they thanked us.
I was jolted from my reverie by a young women placing a stool beside me. She smiled, a big friendly grin that displayed a row of uneven teeth.
“Are you American?” Her English was clear without much of an accent.
“No, I’m from Australia,” I said.
“Oh I like Australia.”
“Have you been there?”
“No,” she admitted, “but one day I will go.”
I nodded and reached for my shampoo aware that she was watching me.
“You have very big breasts. What size are they?”
Since arriving I Japan, I had been asked the same question more times than I could remember and schoolgirls had often asked if they could touch them. These queries stemmed from curiosity, so I usually complied. The first time I had been asked, I thought they had wanted to know what type of bra I had been wearing. “Elle” I announced, meaning Elle McPhearson’s lingerie range. The woman was in awe and proceeded to inform all her friends that I wore a size L cup. And she thought a D cup was well endowed!

I told her my size, watched her gasp and, feeling like I had no choice, complimented her breasts as well. She giggled and thanked me, then in silence we sat there washing our respective breasts. Big and little.

Before long we were joined by an old lady who offered to scrub my back. She’d obviously noticed my tattoo on my bum, and had decided to ask me about it. I guess scrubbing my back was a way of introducing herself, of easing into a conversation about tattoos.

In Japan tattoos are a sign of Yakuza (mafia) connections. Many swimming pools and gyms make you sign a document stating you have no tattoos (and therefore are not a Yakuza) before they allow you to join. Being a foreigner I ignored those rules, and the Japanese ignored my tattoo, until I was starkers in a sento and then I could always be guaranteed of at least one little old lady asking me about it.
“Yakuza?” she asked?
“Fashion, Australian fashion,” I explained.
Granny nodded as though she understood and finished scrubbing my back.
We all sat in the tub together, Granny, Small Breasts and myself. We didn’t speak, we didn’t move but now and then we would lock eyes through the rising steam and smile. Or occasionally sigh. The woman from the door came in and looked around, relaxing visibly when she saw that everyone was fine and the sight of a naked foreign body hadn’t frightened her clientele… too badly. She even looked slightly impressed to see me in the yubune. Or maybe she was reminding herself to change the water, but I interpreted the look as impressed.

That evening, as I left the sento, my wet hair tied back in an elastic, my body tingling, I walked home slowly, enjoying the sights and sounds of the strange city I called home. I opened all my windows in my apartment and lay down on the cool tatami blissfully happy. Blissfully clean. Anew.