Sunday, April 26, 2009

A Hot Time in the Sento!

Friday night was the official welcome party for new teachers at CELE (Center for English Language Education).  It was mostly current and new Visiting Faculty Members (VFMs) and some Japanese teachers and staff who work with us or know some of the Americans.  Some of us ate too much, drank too much, and stayed up too late.

So combined with the fact that Saturday was cold, rainy, and miserable, few people left their apartments.  I managed to drag myself to the AU gym for a pretty decent work out, and Joan went for a run in the fairly heavy, chilly rain - brave girl!

That evening, nobody was in the mood to do anything, but I had been agitating for awhile for an excursion to the local sento.

A sento is a traditional public bath in Japan. Before most houses and apartments had indoor plumbing and bathing facilities, the public bath was the place to get clean and warm and practice “skinship” – which I think is actually how they pronounce the word. I don’t know how they spell it… Skinship is the set of social skills and the ability to feel comfortable around other people, especially naked people. I read somewhere that the older generation in Japan is concerned that the younger generation has lost that skinship and now feel uncomfortable around strangers and even more alienated from society.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the experience in the “onsen” while on the Freshman retreat, a resort/spa-like natural hot springs experience. The sento is similar but very practical and utilitarian. Those of you who have experienced public “banyas” in Kazakhstan or Russia or perhaps some other type of public bath would recognize it immediately. Some things are the same all over the world.

So, back to Saturday night. Joan, Josie, and I bundled up and trudged the three and half blocks through the rain toward the train station. The doorway was half covered by a hanging curtain, and just inside was an area with small lockers for footwear and umbrellas; ladies to the left; gentlemen to the right. Through the sliding door was a changing room split in half by a wooden wall that did not reach the ceiling. Sitting in a raised booth just inside the door with a commanding view of both genders’ room was an old lady, who very kindly took our 450 yen apiece and graciously (we assume) told us to enjoy our bath.

There was nothing else but to strip down under her watchful gaze, store clothing in the larger lockers, and walk with pride through the steamed up glass doors to the bath! And so I did…

Inside was a large, hot, steamy, tiled room. The first two thirds was divided up by waist-high walls with shower heads and spigots. I grabbed one each from the pile of stacked plastic stools and wash basins and chose a spot. Before entering the communal pool, one must be scrubbed clean, if not raw. After a cold and chilly day, the endless hot water and soap felt good. There was one other patron in one of the pools, but for all apparent purposes, it was a solo adventure. Over the not to the ceiling wall, I could hear Joan and Josie giggling and talking to other bathers.

Once clean, I walked up to the pools, the smaller one brown from mineral water and the others green from underwater lights. I stuck a foot in both and quickly decided the green pool was way too hot for my pre-chilled state, so I slipped into the brown pool with a sigh. After a few minutes of soaking, I was ready to move up the temperature scale, so I changed pools and gingerly lowered myself into the green water. Wow! It was hot…

After I don’t know how many pool switches and cooling showers, I finally wrapped it up and took my lobster red body out to the changing room. A small bottle of generic 7 Up from the little glass fronted fridge was deliciously refreshing. I heard Joan and Josie changing on the other side, so I sent a text to let them know I was also ready to go.

We met out side, all of us glowing and extremely clean. The cold air and rain on the wind now felt much better. We floated home and slept extremely soundly. I think that especially in the winter time, the sento is going to be a regular event.

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