An admission: despite my fascination with all things Asian, and a mandate to get under the skin of the places I visit, despite the fact that it’s a big part of both Korean and Japanese culture, and despite my intense curiosity, I have never shown my face – or bum – in a public bath house. It’s not that I don’t want to, I guess I’ve just never had the balls.
The bath house wasn’t that hard to find, a local neighbourhood sento nestled in a neat Asakusa back-alley just off the main road, and I was foot-sore and weary from a day of sightseeing under Japan’s merciless summer sun. As timid as a geisha, I walked past casually three times before building up the courage to slip past the steady stream of customers, step inside and place my shoes and socks in a locker. I was 10% naked already.
Not knowing what to do is the hardest part, and I certainly wasn’t expecting to be confronted by a vending machine. Employing the ancient tourist trick, I lingered, watched others, and copied them. I paid for entry, a rented towel, shampoo and a mini bar of soap – the latter presumably non-returnable – and the machine spat out a series of tiny tickets. My paper passports to bubbling bath house bliss. I traded them in for bathing goods at the front desk, a wooden cubicle with a wizened old woman inside – was she really so old, or just prematurely wrinkled from all the hot water?
Inside the changing rooms I was faced with the greatest test – get your gear off and work out what to do next. I was lost in a room full of lockers and naked, middle-aged men, all Japanese. My locker key didn’t seem to match any of the lockers here, so I stood looking confused (another tourist trick, I swear) until a very helpful young guy pointed me in the right direction. Being Japanese, he bobbed his head in earnest as he spoke; being naked, his privates did the same.
I took my clothes off as slowly and deliberately as a man on death row eats his last meal, only without pausing to savour anything – trust me, there wasn’t much to savour. And I strode off into the baths, as naked as the day I was born, only hairier, and with a plastic locker key strapped around my ankle. I felt every one of my 191 centimetres as I hit the showers; I felt everyone politely not looking-but looking at me. Physically, culturally, I was more out of place than I think I’ve ever been. I was not so much a fish out of water, as a buffalo in an aquarium.
Again I copied my neighbours and sat down on a bucket over a low showerhead and washed myself very thoroughly from head to toe – public baths are for relaxation not hygeine, and jumping in unclean is a grevious sin. After that, I took the final step and lowered myself awkwardly into the tiled vats of steaming, bubbling water and sweating, relaxing men.
Unlike many bath houses, this sento doesn’t just boil tap water for the baths, it actually pumps onsen – hot spring – water straight from under ground. The water was rich, brown-tinged and incredibly refreshing, with a mineral-infused bite that really soaked through you. After half an hour I was a quivering mass of pink, naked contentment when a yakuza gangster sauntered past, head shaved clean and a mural of tattoos spreading across his back. Such was the soothing effects of the water, I barely even registered his presence.
I finished with a cold shower, which I was told gets the circulation going – it sure as hell does. I drifted back into the street at sundown, my eyes glazed and my body floating away. The feeling wore off with every step, but it’s a feeling I’ll certainly experience again very soon.
Back to normal Korean stuff as of next update – just moved house and I’m loving the change. Will not miss my sad old housemate at all.