The other day I went to a sento, a public bath, for the first time. My Finnish friend Jenni invited me. Though I’ve always been a bit shocked at the Japanese custom of bathing publicly in the nude, I’d wanted to try going at least once while in Japan. At first it was quite awkward being in front of my friend and the few ancient ladies at the bath with nothing on, but they didn’t seem to care, and the steam curled so invitingly…I soon forgot my shame in the hot water.
I forgot for that blissful two hours a lot of other things too. The pile of homework waiting for me on my desk. My worries about easy classes that have my Japanese skills on a tokkyu densha ( express train) to nowhere. That English-obsessed old man at church who just gives me the creeps. The club at Doshisha I was invited to that seems to have wanted me along only for that one meeting’s activities and not as a potential new member. The strange feeling of it being Christmas and yet not Christmas at all.
Lingering in the just bearable water until we felt faint, getting out to slop some cooler water over ourselves, slipping back into the tubs—Jenni and I sento-ed the evening away. Having showered for the better part of my life, I didn’t feel properly washed until I crouched under a low shower head and felt the water drum soothingly on my head and shoulders. Jenni on the other hand would dip herself in the cold tub, which she said was about the same temperature as Finland’s sea in summer. This meant she could sit up to her neck in it for several minutes, and that I could wince painfully through a few seconds of dangling my legs in.
To be honest, I haven’t felt lately like writing a journal. I was having a hard time thinking of anything lovely and interesting to write about. But then I thought that like life in general, life abroad has its seasons—it’s not always lovely and interesting. There is the daily grind of studying, the struggle to adjust unmet expectations, to balance academics with the tugs of social life, all on too little sleep and not enough vegetables….
When Jenni and I at last dragged ourselves out of the water and slowly dried and dressed, I thought despite its awkwardness the sento had been quite nice, and I could understand why Japanese people liked them enough to keep them around. I was warm, relaxed, and perfectly clean. A happy weariness coursed through my veins like a strong wine. As I rode home with Jenni I thought how lucky I was to be here, living in the shadow of Mount Hiei and going to classes across the street from the old Imperial Palace, enjoying smaller but no less wonderful things like my international “family” in the dorm; the daily sight of the reedy, heron-filled Kamo River placid under steely winter skies; Ryoji-san’s creamy Kyoto dialect and the scent of sugar caramelizing in the crepe shop; beloved old hymns and Bible verses in Japanese at church; being woken up one morning by monks chanting through the neighborhood; nengajou (New Years’ cards) written while humming along to an online Christmas radio station….I doubt they would catch on back home, but for washing away more than dirt and reawakening one’s appreciation of the small blessings in life, there may be nothing like a luxurious soak in a sento.