When I was in Tokyo in my early twenties, the importance of water in Japanese culture made an impression on me. Temples with miniature fountains and ponds for stone dragons could be found every few hundred yards in the suburbs, with ladles for passers by to pour water on the dragon’s head. On every street corner, near busy main roads dazzling with neon lights, there are ancient sento or bath houses. I enjoyed my twice weekly trips to the sento. I wrote this in 1991 when I was 22.
I get the smell of nice smelling soap. I enter the porch, carefully carrying my sento bowl, filled with soap, a razor, shampoo, a scrubbing cloth and towel in one arm so I can pay the owner, who will be sitting on the other side of the wooden sliding doors, my 120 yen, the price of a can of Coke.
He smiles politely and accepts the money indifferently. The wall behind me is full of wooden lockers. The floor is wooden. In the centre of the floor is an area to sit and drink, read or smoke. At the far wall is a door leading into the tiny garden. Hot after your sento, you can get some cool air and look at the moon. All sounds in the sento are magnified by an echo – because the ceilings are so high. I take off my clothes and place them in the locker. I walk across the wooden floor and scrape open the wooden and glass doors – all the visitors know there’s another one. A couple look round, others clock me in the mirror. The sound of the sliding door echoes round the building as I close it behind me. I pick my spot, the far corner. There are four rows, two against either wall and two back to back along the centre. Tall, fair haired, foreign, ungainly, I walk as unobtrusively as possible along the tiled floor. I place my sento bowl softly on the ceramic surface. The sound of plastic hitting tile reverberates around the room every few seconds. I slide to my feet an empty yellow plastic bowl and a little grey plastic box to sit on. I squat, clear some condensation off the mirror before placing my backside carefully onto the small plastic seat. When seated firmly, I cross my legs on the tiled floor. I pick up my sento bowl and place it on the shelf which is a step – also tiled – between the floor and the wall. I turn on the shower which is head height when sitting. I press the hot water tap and fill my bowl. I’m settled now. I think I know what I’m doing. I’m sweaty and my fingernails are dirty, I need a shave and my hair is greasy. A mess. When I’m finished I’ll feel like a king. I’ll be supremely clean, clean in a way that only the sento can clean. Where shall I start?
Already the hot water from the shower has wet my whole body. But now I pour the hot water from the yellow bowl over my head. Again I fill it and pour water down my back and chest. I’m now saturated with pure hot water. I wipe the mirror again and my whole body looks more muscular because it is red. I spread the scrubbing cloth across my thigh and rub my bar of soap across it. Then working from my neck down to the feet I scrub myself with the cloth until I am covered with white foam. The rub of the coarse cloth is invigorating. Next I massage shampoo into my hair. There is no hurry to wash off the shampoo or soap. After scrubbing my face I shave. As I turn the shower on again the white of the soap disappears and reveals my hot red skin. Now I fill the bowl again and pour water over my head and body three or four times, getting rid of any trace of soap. I feel clean, warm and relaxed. My face looks fresher and the skin around my chin is smooth.
I’m ready now to enter the boiling, bubbling bath. One very old man is submerged up to his face, which looks calm but serious. I get in and wade to the other side. We are in opposite corners of the bath, both on the far wall, looking on to the rest of the building. The water is just hot enough to bear. It wouldn’t be too hot, the owners know what they’re doing. So to display discomfort wouldn’t be appropriate. Slowly I lower myself into the foaming pure water. It has a smell which I can’t describe, the familiar smell of the sento which I’ve never smelt anywhere else.
After two or three minutes I walk carefully out of the bath and return to my spot before the mirror. I look hot. I feel dizzy. With a lazy movement I switch on the shower and wait until I’ve cooled down. Once more I soap myself and rinse as before. Some people take two or three baths but one is enough for me.
I am warm, perfectly clean and relaxed. The owner half smiles at me as I scrape open the wood and glass door and enter the changing room, transformed. I half smile back. I appreciate that he doesn’t want to make a point that I’m a foreigner enjoying a Japanese custom.
I dry myself and dress, pick up my sento bowl and thank the owner as I scrape open the wooden doors, step into my sandals and shuffle out into the night and over to the drinks machine for a can of Coke. In the warm air, I sip my Coke and set off on the short walk home. I’m glad I can experience this custom.
For me the sento was a taste of the ritual use of water still part of everyday life in Japan.