The Sento Dilemma

It was with some confidence that I parted the blue noren obscuring the door of the Tokyo bathhouse, slipped off my shoes and strode up to the 'bath mistress', a formidable woman of middling age, with forearms like a sumo wrestler who was staffing the counter. I had wanted to, for some time, to experience bathing in the local neigbourhood sentō, not the usual spa-like establishments, with glossy receptions and fluffy white towels that most visitors frequent. Public bathing, over the centuries has become synonymous with Japanese culture, an activity that brings together people of all ages, backgrounds and social standing.

Looking up from her ledger, an expression of surprise flickered across her face. Tucked away in an alley way, off an alley way, with only the Kanji character for 'hot water' marking its nondescript entrance, the sentō was clearly way off the usual tourist route. Feeling rather smug about this, I handed over my 450 yen, she inspected my toiletries and once apparently satisfied, handed me a plastic basket and a key for the locker and waved me through the curtains to the women's area.

By matching the character on my keyring with the one on the locker, I easily found my allotted space, undressed, placed my belongings in the basket and then, just as quickly encountered my first conundrum. The basket did not fit in the locker. Confused, I looked around the changing room. Not another basket in sight. Never mind, I decided, it must be for holding the toiletries. Reassured, I slid open the wooden door and stepped through into the bathing area, the sounds of tinkling laughter and Japanese conversation whispering to me through the tannin-laced steam.

Recalling the first rule of sentō etiquette: never hop in the bath without washing yourself thoroughly first, I glanced around the room. I noted a row of low plastic stools and hand held showers over to my left and wandered over. Three elderly women, obviously friends, were already there, chatting and washing, waved as I sat down. Feeling welcome already, I began my ablutions. Some time later, feeling clean, I was just about to sink into the ochre tinged water before slamming face-first into conundrum number two: the women were still scrubbing. Every nook and cranny. Clearly my idea of appropriate pre-bath hygiene was different to theirs. I sat back down and reclaimed my soap.

Observing them surreptitiously, I was relieved, twenty minutes later, to see them turn off the taps, help each other to their feet and sink into adjacent thermal bath. I was preparing to follow their lead when I was startled by a sharp tap on my shoulder. Spinning around, I was confronted by the bath mistress towering over me amid the steam, apparently agitated. She was gesturing furiously at the basket by my feet, shaking her head and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Bewildered, I initially assumed she was implying I wasn't clean enough. Protesting weakly in English, 'No no, feel my hair! Squeaky clean, my hands and nails, not a microbe in sight!' I became acutely aware of the silence, the chatter and laughter had ceased and the entire sentō was now watching the interaction with interest.

Exasperated, she then explained in broken English that that basket was meant for my clothes, not for my toiletries and the locker was for my valuables. Following her pointed finger, I noticed for the first time twenty matching baskets filled with neatly folded clothes stowed carefully on shelves beside the door, and then mine, wet from the shower and bearing a haphazard collection of lotions and soaps. The entire room erupted with laughter. Bowing in apology and ego deflated I was preparing to leave when I suddenly heard calls of protest. The three elderly women were beckoning me, inviting me to stay and share their bath. Torn between wanting to flee and wanting to cross another item off my bucket list, I eventually swallowed my pride, shrugged my shoulders self deprecatingly, joined in their laughter and introduced myself.

Later that evening, as I shared a pot of sencha with my new friends at the teahouse next door, I was told of an old Japanese saying that says, 'we are all equal in the sentō.' What a lovely sentiment. But when you also receive a dressing down from the boss, while naked, in a language you don't understand, then I believe you may have found grounds for an exception.

E Walters

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