You never know who you will meet at the public bath
Since my family’s modest travel plans were canceled by the country’s prolonged fourth state of emergency (or rather, our just determination to respect it), we had ample opportunity to explore our new neighborhood. during the summer holidays. We ended up spending a lot of time in our room sento (public bath).
With a history dating back to the Nara period (710-94) in Japan, when only priests and later sick people were allowed to enjoy them, sentō may not be as popular as it used to be, but they are are still an important part. part of community life in Japan.
Judging by the two public baths within walking distance of our house, this institution is not likely to be gone anytime soon. Both places were packed with naked people every time we went. They are separated by gender, but without thinking too much about social distancing. While at 51 I drastically lowered the average age of clients on some visits, I often saw young dads with their school-aged sons, introducing a new generation to the joy of being naked in public. .
I also met, to my surprise, several tattooed gentlemen in one of the sentries. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any ‘no tattoo’ sign upon entering, but assumed it was only because they were so part of the decor that I didn’t notice them anymore. Although I remain without an illustration myself, in principle I support my tattooed friends in their fight for the right to undress and soak in public.
I assumed that the body art I saw in my scent was a real yakuza badge, the kind of tattoos that are the cause of the ban in most facilities – sentō, gyms, beaches. – in the first place. I have to admit that my knowledge of this subject is limited to having seen a few Kinji Fukasaku films. The slicked back hairstyles of the gentlemen in question also match the clichés.
Still, they seemed friendly enough. I accidentally cut her path when we both tried to get into the same little hot tub. “This is it,” I thought. “My life is over.” But he just graciously let me go first, then also entered the pool, which could only comfortably accommodate one guest. Is this what Japanese sentō lovers call sukinshippu (“Skinship”), the special bond that you forge with your fellow citizens naked in hot water?
We haven’t talked much, but it’s probably not necessary for real skin. Even if my Japanese was better than it is, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Probably not: “So… have you organized any interesting crimes recently?” Or “So what about these Yamaguchi-gumi?” Don’t they have a terrible season?
Between them, the tattooed bathers talked a lot, which went against the very rudimentary antivirus protocols of the establishment. But I’m not about to silence a bunch of would-be crime lords.
Later, when I told my Japanese wife about the meeting, she had doubts about my assessment.
“Did you count their fingers?” ” she asked. “It’s a better indicator.” Sometimes I wonder if it’s me or her who’s seen too many old movies.
I don’t know much about the rules of the underworld, but the rules of sentō are simple. Anyone who has mastered onsen (hot spring) bathing without making a fool of yourself will feel at home: undress; soap and rinse every part of your body for an incredibly long time; step into the pools and enjoy as long as you can take the heat; wash again; and then you are free to go.
If, like me, you leave the feeling to go out in the summer heat, the whole exercise turns out to be a bit wasted. You will need to shower again as soon as you get home.
During this time, my wife and our 7 year old daughter also had a meeting in the women’s section of sentō. An elderly lady, the bane of all Métis children, approached them and gave the usual cooing appreciation of our daughter’s kindness and how she could become a role model. The woman left, then apparently had a flash of guilt and came back to add, “And mom too.”
We’re all glad we got into the habit, though. We have now settled our winter nights.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.
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