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A window into my semester-long self-meditation, exploration of Japanese cuisine, rollicking in Kansai, and doing nanimo at Kansai Gaidai.

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Mar 01

The Sento Experience

Today was another fantastic experience. I got up “early” and took the bus to meet my friends at 11am at Hirakata-shi eki (Hirakata City Train Station). To get to the eki, I took a bus using the bus pass I will have to return on Monday due to the fact that I no longer need it to commute. On the way to the station, I happened to get the chance to see my friend Lindsay biking along on her peach pink bike on the sidewalk next to the other side of the road. As I sat at the red light, watching her shrink into the distance, I felt sure that she would beat me to the train station. Earlier in the month, a Japanese student had asked me, “What do you think is faster, my bike or the bus?” I said the bus, of course. And he was waiting for me at Hirakata-shi eki when I arrived on said bus. However, he’s had a lifetime of constant biking experience, unlike Lindsey, who the bus quickly passed up. Nonetheless, she arrived only about 5 minutes after me.

Upon arriving at the station, I figured I’d pass some time looking around until Lindsey, our coordinator, arrived. I quickly spied an old bag-man wearing a jacket with “PLAYBOY” splashed on the back. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I’m sure he didn’t care what his jacket said, since he wasn’t in the best finances, but it was still hilarious. I whipped out my half-broken phone and attempted to unlock the keys several times (one reason why candystick phones suck) and take a photo surreptitiously. But I wasn’t fast enough—He was already walking away by the time I got the cam working. So I followed him! I walked ten paces behind him for half a block, hoping people would thin out around us so I could take a clear photo without being seen and with noise to cover the sound of the camera, which I can’t shut off (another reason why this phone sucks). (OK, to be fair, this phone is still way cooler than my American phone.)

I soon realized I wouldn’t be able to get the photo. So I stopped, pretended to stare into the Softbank store interestedly, glancing down periodically at my half-broken phone, and then turned back around like I was in a big hurry to meet someone (which I was).

When I met up with my friends, there were three other girls and two guys there to go on the sento trip Lindsey had set up. The girls I was expecting to go weren’t there, and honestly I felt a little awkward with everyone but Lindsey, despite having hung out with them all numerous times before.

The sento we were going to Lindsey had found on a gaijin (foreigner) blog, which had recieved a 20/20 rating. To get there, we took the Keihan express train towards Osaka and got off at Kyobashi (Kyoba city), a large transfer center for people switching from Keihan to the JR train. JR is the largest train system in Japan, and operates a number of shinkansen (bullet trains) as well. We switched to the JR, and took it one stop backwards, away from Osaka, to Shigino. From there, we spotted the McDonald’s and walked past it, as per the blog’s instructions, until we reached the river. At the river, you take a left, although we kept walking straight, until we realized that we had passed the river. The we turned back and followed the river until we saw the last bridge, and then turned left again and found the sento on a corner of the street parallel to the river but one street over, nearer to the eki (train station).

The outside of the sento seemed to immediately mark it as a public bath house, as it was covered in light blue watery tones in both tile and glass. At first we wondered if it was closed, since we didn’t see anyone or any lights inside. But then a middle-aged man came down the stairs and out the door, and stared at us as he passed us. So we went in the doorway and up the stairs, which, though not lit with artificial light, was illuminated by the blue-grey sheen of daylight filtering through the frosted windows. Or at least, that’s how I remember the experience anyway.

At the top of the stairs, we took off our shoes and Lindsey walked over to the old woman sitting at the counter inbetween the entrances to the men’s and women’s baths to ask her what the cost was for six people. 410en each, or around $4.50, was what we each paid, and then we all attempted to fit our shoes and bags into one rented locker, until we realized there were free lockers for our shoes. There also turned out to be free lockers for our stuff too, once we entered the changing area, so we had rented that locker for nothing. The rental lockers were probably intended to keep things you aren’t supposed to bring into the bath, such as anything that can take pictures (phones), things that are too big for the inner lockers (although they aren’t much smaller), or maybe even food/drink, although I’m not sure about that last.

Once inside, we started undressing and taking quick glances around and through the half-frosted windows in front of the bathing area to try to figure out what the process for getting into the bath should be. The floor was covered in a smooth tamimi mat-like covering, except likely cheaper and waterproof. In one corner was a mysterious door, and in another was the drying/touch up area, with a mirror, counter, rental hair dryers, and a fan.

Once we were half undressed, we realized we’d need the small white towels everyone was putting around their heads, in order to cover our private parts. Luckily, we didn’t need to redress and go outside to ask for them, because the good okaasan came in then, worried about her gaijin guests. Once she gave us the towels, we asked if we could pay the 100en rental fee after the bath rather than go to the outer locker to find our purses now, and she was fine with it. I’m sorry to say we forgot to pay when we got out though. She forgot as well! Then again, it’s possible that the towels, which came with the buckets, may have been free and there was just a misunderstanding.

Once we were down to our underclothes (or less) we all decided to go to the restroom, which turned out to be behind the mysterious door. While waiting forever for one lady to come out of the restroom, we all started to begin to feel more comfortable with ourselves. We weighed ourselves, look at our selves in the mirror, and one girl began to poke another girl in the boobs with her bucket. Sound odd? Well it wasn’t odd to us. By this point we were already starting to revert to the state of children in a bath: innocently curious about other people’s bodies, but not particularly caring what we see, and excited just to be in such an unusual situation. Consequently, this boob poking was a result of us beginning to feel much more comfortable with nudity: so much so that such a thing wouldn’t be considered perverted joking so much as regular playfulness. I finally understand why it is that Japanese women occasionally grab each others boobs as a joke or to comment on the size—they just are much more comfortable with other people’s bodies than western women are, so such a thing can occur within the realm of comfort and normality, to a certain extent. I believe that now I would even feel relatively comfortable being around nudists on a nude beach or at a certain hot spring where I know many such nuddists and hippies live in California.

Once we all finished using the bathroom, we walked tentatively into the bathing room, which was filled with showers on one side and baths on the other. I let my friends know a piece of ettiquete I picked up from reading Getting Wet: An Adventure in Japanese Baths, a travel writing book I had highly enjoyed last semester: newcomers to a public bath house are supposed to take the seats closest to the door, where cold air often comes in, to show respect for the regular sento patrons. So we chose a set of four marble seats close to the door and shared our supplies. The bath house provided shampoo and soap, but we provided each other with conditioner and face soap, and I carried my own scrub. Different sento provide different services, however, so check before you go. If you bring a towel, you’ll likely save 100en, and I recommend you bring deodorant as well.

I took longer to shower than everyone else, for some reason. I think I just am super thorough, as my Chinese mother taught me to be—I even clean my ears. This cleanliness has traditionally come with the price of using up copious amounts of water, and a habit of singing in the shower only worsened the problem. However, I learned within my first day of arriving in Japan how important saving water is in a small country with limited resources.

Upon arriving in the seminar houses for the orientation week, I found that the showers operated much like those annoying sinks where you had to press the top of the faucet to have a limited amount of water spurt out, before you did it again with your still soapy hand. Though I was put off to find out the seminar house had implemented such a system, I decided to take showers like a Japanese person, using water only when necessary. Half way through my first shower, I stopped constantly pressing the button to keep warm, and I found that I was warm enough in the steamy shower room once I got used to this idea and mindset.

In the public bath house as well, we all sat down on the little wet marble seats and turned the showerhead on only when we needed to rinse. The showerhead was placed around waist level, the perfect hieght for a sitting person, and beneath the shower were hot and cold faucets for filling our tubs in place of showering. It’s quite usual to find low shower heads like that in Japan, even in the seminar house showers where there are no stools for sitting unless you bring one in. This habit of sitting to shower probably evolved from people washing next to a hot tub and scooping out water to rinse themselves out. This would be rather hard to do from a standing position. Sitting to wash on very low stools is also much easier than it seems to be. I’ve found there’s certain ways to position yourself to make everything easy to reach.

After rinsing off, we filled our tubs with water and poured it over our seats to clear off the soap. We could have turned on the shower instead, but without our bodies on the seats, water could splash onto a neighbor, and this is considered somewhat rude.

I joined my fellow gainjin in the large warm pool on the other side of the room, and then I jumped into the pool they reported as “scald your skin off hot.” And though I was committed to being the brave, have-to-stand-it-like-real-Japanese-people girl, I only stayed in that pool for a few minutes. Though I know I could have settled into a sort of reverie that comes with warmth, comfort, quiet, and solitude, my toes soon began to burn and I figured it might actually be better for my skin if I didn’t endure too much heat.

The scalding hot pool was a prelude to going to their outdoor pool. I knew from experience at my homestay family’s bath, that if I warmed up sufficiently in the bath, I wouldn’t feel nearly as cold when I stepped outside to change. In a sort of contrary logic, however, one of my friends enjoyed jumping into the cold pool before going outside. I think in general she enjoyed the cold much more than I did. I have a solid mindset that hot is good, cold is bad. Although I have to admit that, again, once you get used to the idea of enjoying a cold splash, it does become much more pleasant.

The outdoor pool, though surrounded by solid walls, was open to a blue sky spotted with white clouds. This pool basically became the gaijin pool, as we tended to disturb people wherever we went, and we mostly went to the outer pool. We did attempt to lower our voices, but it was too much to stay silent when we were experiencing so much for the first time. Furthermore there were four of us, so we took up a lot of space, and perhaps crowded a pool enough to make people leave. Gaijin smash? Or gaijin failure? Or neither? I think it really depends on how you view your experience here as to whether you view such experiences as victories or losses. I really don’t see it as either, in this case.

There was one other pool of note in this sento, and together with the outdoor pool may have been large contributors to the 20/20 rating, and that is the electric voltage pool. My friends and I had actually entered this pool without knowing what it was. I happened to enter from the side where there was virtually no voltage, but my friends entered from the side where it was strongest, and did register the feeling, but probably categorized is as just one of those strange feelings your body occasionally has, before they came to my side of the bath and sat down. We talked there for quite some time before we decided to get out, and Lindsey mentioned the weird feeling your legs have when you go to the other side of the pool. Quickly recognizing what this must be from the book Getting Wet, I placed my hand nearer to the other end and felt a strong tingle under my skin, in my bones. When I moved my hips into that area, the feeling was even stronger in my hip joints and I freaked out and moved away. Though I had been looking forward to my first low voltage bath, I also knew that it was possible to freeze up if you stayed in one too long near where the volts were emitted. I also did NOT know why electricity might be good for me, so I decided not to test my body seizing up by staying further in the pool. That’s right, I chickened out. But now that I’m sufficiently ashamed, I will certainly test my limits at the next onsen or sento that I visit, for I will definitely be visiting more in the future.

This experience  was much like what I expected it to be. My friends and I were exuberant, but also in consert with our surroundings enough to let the tranquility of the place move us into a more profound and peaceful state of mind. Since I have yearned intensely for this experience ever since reading that book, I ended up staying in the baths longer than my friends.

I found it highly enjoyable to at last be alone in the outer bath, my body half inside the heated pool and the rest exposed to the cool air of a beautiful day. I could see the soft light of the sky through my shut eyes, and I settled into an utterly immobile state for a minute. I was much like a river stone that found the right spot to settle into at the bottom of the current. This sense of rightness is something that comes along with being at peace. But my immobility lasted only for a minute, at most, before I began to move slightly again, showing the signs of a living creature despite myself. Though I continued to make gradual movements to stretch or resettle myself, I was nonetheless peaceful. I found that I could reflect in the bath much like any Japanese person does at the end of their day. And when my friends came back outside, I found that though their voices might disturb some people, as they conflicted with the sound of the water falling into the pool, it was still possible to zone out and make their voices into a pleasant part of the background, just like the sound of the waterfall. My friends left again for the final time, encouraging me to take my time (which I highly appreciated), and I ended my reflections on the thought that bonding experiences with a few people are much more important than fun experiences where you don’t bond so much as build upon your popularity and status. Consequently, I may party less than I thought I would in Japan. However, when I studied abroad in Spain as a high school junior, a similar phenomenon happened: I ended up sticking with a few friends who I did everything with. This was not a result of me being cliquey, though that is the real reason most people end up in one group of friends. On the contrary, I think that this is a result of simply having more meaningful experiences with fewer people around. Though one’s status and image among one’s peers is definitely important to having self-confidence and to developing and holding one’s own self-image, having learning experiences while abroad is so much more important, and so I will be focusing on the latter from now on.

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