The Public Baths

by Frank Lev, Mar 28, 2001 | Destinations: Japan / Kyoto

On Sunday a few weeks ago, I went to the sento (public baths) here for the first time. Maybe you've heard that Japanese are real big on baths and keeping clean.

I was amazed at what I saw. Each neighborhood has at least a few public baths. You go in and pay your money, about $3.00 US. Everyone complains that this is so high which seems strange to me because it's the only thing that I've found in the country that doesn't seem outrageously priced.

The men go to one side and the women go to the other side. Once in you get a locker with a key and inside the locker is a woven basket that you put all your clothes in. The Japanese men have a little basket with their soap and or shampoo and razors (they do have facial hair and they do shave) and they put this into a little plastic basin and carry it into the bath room.

The one I went to was about 20 feet by 30 feet. 2 walls were lined with spickets with hot and cold water and a showerhead but they were designed to be used sitting down. There are these little plastic benches that the men sit down on with their rumps about 5 inches off the ground. Then the work sets in.

I thought that I was clean after my shower but by Japanese standards I was filthy. They have these little towels about the size of a dish towel, but much longer, and they use this to clean or maybe scrape the dead skin off would be a more accurate description. They put the dish towel on their leg and then vigorously and thoroughly soap it. This takes literally about 2 minutes. Then they meticulously and thoroughly scrub and scrub each part of the body. That means scrubbing the back of the hand about 10 times (20 seconds) and then the forearm about 10 times and the upper arm. They are meticulous and don't miss an inch of skin anywhere. Back, back of the neck, everywhere. It's amazing.

At the risk of looking stranger than I already did, I watched one man from start to finish (as I was soaking in the bath) and it took 20 minutes. Only after all this is done, do they proceed to the bath.

There were 5 tile tubs in the one I went to. Each was about 5 feet square and the depth varied. One was very cold and people would sometimes come over and fill water bottles with this water. It was well water and better than the metallic tasting city water. The others were all hot but one was very hot. Also one was steeped in herbs and the brown pleasant but slightly funky mixture made me fill like I was part of a soup. Also there was a sauna.

I spent my time jumping from tub to tub, getting a buzz when I would plunge into the cold. For the Japanese men though, the real purpose of the baths was not so much to enjoy the waters as to get clean. I now have a new appreciation of the word clean.

I went to another sento in another neighborhood yesterday and barely escaped with my life. This was a much nicer one. There were many different rooms and kinds of tubs. They had a bubble tub that shot out streams of bubbles and water into your back or wherever you chose to aim it. They also had a tub that was outside in a little Japanese garden.

The most surprising one though was the electric tub. I'm not sure how it works but this tub they shoot an electric current through the water. When you go in you feel a shock. It's a strange feeling. It makes you muscles contract involuntarily. And it hurts. I was able to get my legs in there with great difficulty, and my arms one at a time. I tried to submerge my body in it but it was too painful.

The Japanese men were all laughing at me. I watched many of them calmly come over and submerge themselves into the electric bath.

Did I mention that I nearly escaped death? Well maybe I was exaggerating a bit. Since there were so many rooms to this sauna I was walking, exploring. There was a door with fogged and glazed plastic. I opened the door and walked in expecting to see a new kind of bath. What I saw was a lot of naked women. I quickly covered myself with my little hand towel and backed out of the room.

I guess there was a sign in Japanese saying "don't enter" but of course I couldn't read it. I had gone into the women's part of the sento by mistake (really it was a mistake). Luckily the women that I saw naked didn't see me (or pretended that they didn't.)

I don't know what would have happened if they had seen me. Maybe they would have judo'd me to death. Or maybe they would have arrested me or banned me from going into any public bath in Japan for life. I can imagine posters all over Japan with my picture on it saying "Danger: do not let this foreigner into your public bath."

But probably what they would have done is held me in that electric bath until I was toasted golden brown and then eaten me with soy sauce, seaweed, and tofu. Luckily they didn't see me.