Looking for new ways to feel inadequate? Try a sento bath

I’m rather fond of my technique for slipping off shoes. I’ve invested in a pair of Hush Puppies, which cling snugly to my foot without the aid of shoelaces. So long as I’m sober and have some space, I can gently elevate my right heel and slide the ball of the foot down to the opening. At just the right moment the knuckles of my toes are close to the edge, so when I glide my right foot up along the back of my left leg, my left hand is ready to slip the shoe off. Do the same on the other side and I’ve freed my feet from their shoes, no bending required.

Deploying this technique got my visit to my neighbourhood sento off to a rocking start. While Japan’s onsens get plenty of attention for their idyllic soaking experience, it is to sentos that people head in urban areas for a wash and a bath. Dating back to a time when in-home bathing options were scarce, sentos became a communal spot for keeping clean and inevitably a place for gossip and intrigue. Nowadays they are a cherished relic of a bygone era, one plenty of Japanese use daily.

There are hundreds of sentos across Tokyo, most of them family owned and passed down through generations. From the street they have a quiet, understated look, often with just a small curtain hanging over a modest entrance. Despite this lack of Big Sento calling the shots, each have remarkable similarities in the experience they offer.

Heading in

With my shoes in hand I was ready for my first test of the unspoken rituals of the sento. I browsed the small lockers seeking the spot to rest my Hush Puppies. A handful of the lockers had keys dangling with metal cards attached, while those without keys had shoes visible through the small display window. I picked my slot – the low ones were no place for a Gaijin to reach and the tall ones would have just been showing off – popped my shoes inside and took my key.

After I stood expectantly at the automatic door, waving my arms with increasing vigour, an elderly lady with her hair in a neat bun approached from behind and hit the button, prompting the door to slide open. “Arigato,” I mumbled in quiet shame.

Neat Hair Lady continued ahead of me to the counter in the modest foyer, where she stacked some 100-yen coins on the counter. As I stood behind her I looked at the toiletries arranged neatly in a basket: small bottles of soap and shampoo, some cheap razors in plastic, single-use toothbrushes and toothpaste, and a collection of fluffy white objects awaiting insertion in a cavity of some sort or another.

The elderly lady’s stack of 100-yens replaced with some copper coins in a tray, she grabbed her change and ventured through the curtain to the right of the counter. Now it was my turn.

I stared intently at the Japanese sign posted to the side of the counter, with a blizzard of unrecognisable kanji (for me, that’s pretty much all kanji) and a scattering of numbers. I was none the wiser. The bored young attendant took pity on me. “First time?” Sento Scion asked me. I nodded gormlessly. “Four-sixty yen,” he said. “Need a towel?” My desire to travel light had left me without one. “Hai,” I said, my Japanese fooling no-one. He reached below the desk and took out a cheap yellow towel in plastic. “You wash?” Without waiting for an answer he grabbed a sachet of soap and another of shampoo and added them to the pile. I handed over my thousand yen note and received a tinkling of coins. Sento Scion nodded to the left of the counter, and I ventured through the curtain.

Taking off

Three steps up a passage and I found myself inside the male dressing room. Blokes stood around in various states of undress, one salaryman-type without trousers resting forlornly on a wooden bench, an old bloke fashioning a combover in front of the mirror and a young stallion with a cowlick standing on the scales and admiring the outcome. The walls on two sides were lined with lockers, keys in the locks of some, although this time the keys had a spring of coiled plastic attached. I opened one.

I placed my towel and toiletries on top of the locker, along with the shoe key, then proceeded to undress. I shoved my shirt and pants inside, then unclasped my watch. I glanced around the changeroom, keen not to catch anyone’s gaze. On a wall was a poster encouraging good sento manners, with cartooned images and bilingual captions imploring people to take off all their clothes, to avoid running and to wash thoroughly before entering the bath. This last one seemed to carry the implicit postscript, “We’re talking to you, Gaijin”.

Becoming desensitised to the saggy male flesh on display, I overcame my fleeting inhibitions and removed my socks, then my underwear. No shame in nakedness if we’re all that way. I put the socks and jocks in the locker, shut the door and turned the key. Or tried to. The key refused to budge, so drawing on generations of family wisdom, I tried to force it. No movement.

Diverting from his path to the exit, Combover Man stepped my way. He muttered a phrase I didn’t catch, though could probably guess, and reached above the locker to the shoe key. He took the metal card to which it was attached and inserted it into a slot on the back of the locker door, then shut the door and turned the now-obliging key. The locker sealed, he removed the key and placed it in my hand, with a paternal tap. “Arigato,” I mumbled.

Scrubbing down

By now I had mastered the sliding door technique, so confidently tapped the button and ventured into the sento itself. The sento was clearly no place for the self-conscious. Before me a dozen or so naked bodies filled the space, the full breadth of Japanese masculinity on display. There were a couple of older blokes with paunch bellies, some rake-thin fellas with a hint of rib, a few younger body-proud types, and one pasty-white oversized foreigner. Me.

Peering down upon the room was an epic mosaic, showing off an elaborate sailing ship as it took to the high seas. Along two walls, and on either side of a free-standing wall in the middle, were taps, faucets and showerheads. Some were occupied by men soaping up their entire bodies, vigorously massaging shampoo into their hair, or shaving off whiskers. Other men were letting the water gush down upon them. And some were just studying their reflection in the mirror.

And then there was the bath itself, a tub perhaps four metres in length that could accommodate six men learning back, metal handrails demarking the space, with jets of water creating a white swell on the edge. Three of the slots were occupied, the bathers laying back in a state of light-headed bliss, one with a towel gently piled upon his seemingly catatonic head.

The Japanese talk about naked communication, the idea that being a little bit vulnerable in the company of another will prompt more heartfelt conversation than might otherwise be possible. Perhaps, but that day at the sento not a word was said among the dozen or so men gathered. Instead all were staring into the middle distance, perhaps concerned about what might appear in their gaze should they focus too intently.

I followed the lead of the other men and grabbed a plastic stool and washbowl. I camped out at one of the taps, dousing myself with water then making use of the soap and shampoo. Keen to show I was no bath-polluting dirty foreigner, I rubbed the soap into my arms and chest with demonstrative vehemence. Satisfied that no errant germ could possibly my polluting my otherwise pristine body, I headed for the water.

Drifting away

Eyeing off a vacant spot in the bath, I tiptoed down the two steps and then twisted my body to back into position. The heat of the bath caused me to wince momentarily, as my body adjusted to the 41-degree soup the electronic sign on top informed me it was now being immersed in.

As I settled in I felt the jet of water apply a burst of pressure to my back, and assumed the look of aforementioned light-headed bliss. There might not have been much naked communicating going on, but there sure was a lot of free-association mind-wandering. (Is this how a live lobster feels when in thrown in a pot of boiling water? How could you escape if you only had pincers? Why haven’t lobsters evolved to be able to escape boiling pots? Why haven’t humans evolved to stop torturing lobsters? Clearly my mind free-associates in strange ways.)

After a few minutes of watching bodies of all shapes and sizes wander around the washing room, it was time to try something new.

On the opposite side of the room sat a cold plunge pool. Fearful I was at risk of enjoying myself, I had to try it. I tiptoed in and felt the icy chill immediately, every part of my body recoiling at the contrast in temperature. I squatted on a step in the corner of the pool, hoping that by consolidating my considerable mass I would retain some warmth. My upper body remained out of the water in defiant protest.

As I squatted grimly a broad-chested man swaggered up to the chilled waters. Delicate tiptoes were not his style. Instead he used a plastic scoop like an oar to collect some water and thrust it upon his upper body (in the process, sending waves through the small pool that quickly immersed my upper body too). Then Broad Chest gave his shoulders a hearty slap then stepped into the pool, barely pausing before he plunged his whole body under, staying immersed for five long seconds before he arose, shook his head like a horse and stepped out. With a guttural grunt he was on his way, while I sat squatting in the corner like the wimp I clearly was.

Finishing up

After a second visit to the hot bath I was ready to wash off, get dressed and fashion my fingers into a comb to compensate for my lack of foresight. Back in the foyer a fridge hummed in the corner, stocked with little bottles of milk. My childhood memories of public pools associate them with flavoured milk, so continuing a personal tradition, I grabbed a coffee-flavoured one and counted out 150 yen from my wallet.

I sat down on the couch while an inane Japanese talk show blared through the television, and removed the plastic blister pack from the top of the drink. I tried to twist the lid off, but it just kept spinning. Sensing the futility of the exercise Broad Chest wandered over and pulled the lid off with his thumb and index finger. “Arigato,” I mumbled, a bit surprised he hadn’t used the crook of his neck instead.

The coffee-d milk washing through my body, it was time to hit the road. Having mastered the key system I extracted my shoes and slipped them back on in an effortless deployment of my signature move.

I wandered down the street cleaner, calmer and clear headed. I reckon I’ll be back. And maybe I’ll get to show some other hapless foreigner how it’s done.


An Ant in Tokyo: The recycling sort

Feeling brave in Tokyo? Perhaps you want to try chowing down on fugu? Or standing toe-to-toe with a sumo? Or maybe just doing a spot of recycling.

It should be no surprise that the place that spawned a New York Times best-seller dedicated to the art of tidying up should have an astonishingly elaborate system for sorting its garbage. Not content with broad categories of recycling, Japan asks people to sift categories of waste into an elaborate dichotomy that requires a diligent household to have up to a dozen piles, lest the juice cartons contaminate the miso boxes, or the plastic bento trays interfere with the empty drink bottles.

Sorting through garbage has become part of the Japanese experience. Where many other parts of the world cluster recyclable things together when they leave the home, and only sort things downstream, Japan has opted to put the burden firmly on the shoulders of individuals.

Embassy recycling bins
It’s enough to trigger OCD.

The information sheet issued by the ward administration in our part of Tokyo does a heroic job of explaining the different categories into which trash must be sorted.

So what are the Dirty Dozen? There’s glass, cans, plastic bottles, other plastic, newspaper, cardboard, drink cartons, books and magazines, batteries, rags – and then whatever doesn’t fit into these categories is separated into burnable or non-burnable. Got all that?

Recycling instructions
Apparently avoiding garbage duty is why some Japanese become ascetic.

Adding to the complexity is the schedule of garbage collection, in which different categories are collected on different days, sometimes with differing frequency. It is little wonder that one of the objections some locals have to Airbnb leases in their neighbourhood is that non-locals will not follow the garbage disposal rules properly.

And things don’t get much easier when you leave the house. Public bins are scarce in parks and at railway stations, so people are expected to carry their garbage until they find a suitable spot to dispose it, or a sufficiently discreet enough spot that they can leave it without fear of discovery.

When you do finally find a recycling station, they look a bit like this:

School recycling bins
Would you risk the humiliation of getting this one wrong?

Self-serve restaurants expect patrons to sort out their leftovers in garbage at elaborate disposal stations, prompting each patron to form a snap judgement about the combustibility of each item on their tray, haunted by the social opprobrium that may be directed their way should they make a bad call.

The success of the Japanese system relies on a strong popular willingness to comply. Sorting garbage is tricky, messy and time-consuming. It relies not only on most people knowing the rules – which itself depends on good communications and high rates of literacy – but also on caring about the rules.

An ingrained commitment to rules and confidence in the fairness of the system is needed to achieve such a high rate of compliance, all the more so when the act of sorting garbage is basically private, involving only the sacred bond between trash-chucker and garbo.

In public places, people in many parts of the world have come to expect an abundance of easily accessible bins. Take those bins away, or make them complex to use, and some people believe they have been relieved of their obligation to clean up after themselves.

And yet, in Japan it works: the streets are spotlessly clean, non-compliance is rare and recycled materials are commonplace. In fact, it has helped turn Japan into a global leader in recycling strategy, prompting others around the world to consider if they can take a leaf from Japan’s book.

It is tricky to find good data on how countries compare in their trash habits, but some World Bank numbers look pretty good for Japan. Japan generates 1.71 kilos of municipal solid waste per person per day, less than most other developed countries including Australia (2.23 kilos), Germany (2.11 kilos) and the United States (2.58 kilos). And in sending just 3 per cent of its total waste to landfills, it is one of the lowest the world.

Curiously, 74 per cent of its total waste is reportedly used in energy production. There’s an excellent explainer on that – and more – over at Tofugu:

If you hear the words “fluidized bed” in relation to Japan, you might think you’re reading an article about Love Hotels. Sorry to disappoint, but at least fluidized bed combustion is pretty exciting. It is a very efficient way of burning materials that don’t normally burn easily. Your carefully sorted rubbish will be suspended in a hot, bubbling bed of ash and other particulates as jets of air are blown through it. Apparently the “fast and intimate mixing of gas and solids promotes rapid heat transfer and chemical reactions within the bed.” Who ever said garbage disposal wasn’t sexy?

All joking aside, this thermal treatment of municipal solid waste does have some advantages over other forms of incineration. It is cheaper, takes up less space, and produces fewer nitrogen oxides and less sulphur dioxide. One of them was even built near Shibuya station in 2001. It can also be used as part of a Waste to Energy system, using the resultant heat to create power.

What has promoted Japan to take such a zealous approach to recycling? As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of recycling – or something like that. A report from the Institution of Environmental Sciences pinpointed three reasons why Japan has become a leader:

  • High population density and limited landfill space;
  • Very limited domestic metal and mineral resources, making remanufacturing and recycling attractive;
  • A business culture emphasising collaboration, leading to a comprehensive approach, both to measurement and to action.

There is one piece of the puzzle, though, that Japan has largely ignored: reducing consumption.

Japan has fetishised packaging on consumer products to such an extent that even the simplest of products has an elaborate unboxing process that would make the most narcissistic YouTuber salivate.

Take these two apples, for sale recently at a Tokyo supermarket. The apples themselves – robust fruit that could probably fend for themselves pretty well – were resting in pink beanies, sitting on a paper tray, surrounded in a plastic wrap and then labelled, as if their apple-ness was not immediately apparent.

Japan apples
Exhibit A in the case for overpackaging.

It seems that the packaging here serves far more of a symbolic, rather than practical, function: the packaging is connoting the pristineness of the product, its separation from the wild, untamed (and, yes, dirty) natural world from which it is sourced. In other contexts, the packaging acts as a symbol of thoughtfulness, of a gift or of effortless affluence.

Take these well-packaged items to the cash register and you will almost always be offered a plastic bag in which to place them. Bring your own bag to the counter, or seek to go bag-free, and you will get the same quizzical look from the attendant as if you had just rocked up with a parrot perched upon your shoulder, a look that says “That’s not how we do things around here.”

At first glance it seems odd for a culture that takes such pride in its recycling to have so few qualms about superfluous consumption and packaging. But perhaps the recycling is used to excuse the wasteful packaging, allowing people to continue to accept layer upon layer by giving them the psychological comfort that the waste will eventually be recycled. In that way, the elaborate recycling rituals may act as an enabler for wasteful behaviour among people who just cannot bear to give it up.

This is not to say that winding back the recycling effort would force a rethink of packaging habits. It seems these excessive packaging habits are largely ingrained and will not change easily. An interesting parallel can be seen in the efforts to reduce electricity consumption in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, which put Japan’s nuclear power industry offline. For the summer that followed, offices switched off their air conditioning, shopping malls switched off their escalators and izakayas switched off their neon, cutting demand by up to 20 per cent in some places. Did this newfound austerity last? By the time I visited in the summer of 2012, things had pretty much returned to normal and have stayed that way. Some habits are too hard to break.

Japan’s commitment to recycling is impressive, and sets a benchmark for the rest of the world. Couple that with reduced consumption, though, and the results could be even better.

Keen for more trivia on trash in Japan? Check out this excellent collection.


An Ant in Tokyo

One week from now I’ll be wandering amid the dappled sunlight of cherry blossoms, resting elegantly on a tatami as I sip green tea, watching a bead of sweat trickle down the thigh of a sumo and admiring the floral outfits of a geisha as she wanders past.

Who am I kidding? I’ll be more likely dodging Typhoon Lan, getting my ribs crushed on a peak-hour subway train and poking my chopsticks suspiciously at a glutinous grey mass in a cardboard box.

Or perhaps it will be a bit of both.

Anyhow, the point is that next Sunday I am moving to Japan with my wife, a diplomat henceforth known as The Diplomat, and my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, henceforth known as Kawaii. Japan has always held plenty of mystique for me, thanks to the swirling mix of exotic Orientalism coupled with the familiar comforts of the developed world. And also Astro Boy.

My primary mission in Japan is to be a Hands-On Dad to Kawaii while The Diplomat makes her mark professionally in a country she has admired since she lived there as a high school exchange student more than two decades ago.

Along the way I am hoping to discover the delights of Tokyo, and the rest of Japan, with my family. Fathers taking a major role in parenting are often described as Stay-at-Home Dads, however I plan to be anything but. Kawaii and I are going to be out and about so much checking out all that the city has to offer that home will be just one of many places we will visit. I’ll be a bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – a tall white guy hanging around Tokyo with a female a generation younger than himself.

Not so long ago we bought Kawaii a book to introduce her to Japanese. My First Book of Japanese Words uses each letter of the alphabet to teach kids a new word.

What’s up first? A. Ari means ant, it says. So now I know that every time a Japanese person hears my name, their mental image will be of the smallest and most insignificant creature in the animal kingdom. The one that lives its life in the shadows of everything else. The one whose fate is to be either trodden on or ignored. Perhaps there’s a message in that.

Anyhow, while I have plenty of enthusiasm for life in Tokyo, I know I am beginning at something of a disadvantage.

For starters, my Japanese language skills are minimal. For decades my Japanese has been limited to tamago, teppanyaki and agedashi tofu, and even then I think I was screwing up the pronunciation. Knowing that our departure was looming, a few months back I started online learning via Rosetta Stone, a fine website and app that seeks to marinate your brain in language and hoping some of it sticks like terriyaki.

Rosetta Stone is a great tool, and I do intend to persist, but it does present some rather odd phrases (“the man is under the car”) ahead of the essentials (“where is the toilet?”). Many Japanese words, I have discovered, sound like the English version uttered by someone who got distracted part way through (“terebi” for “television”). Rosetta Stone has also left me with an exceedingly enthusiastic pronunciation, such is the excitement with which each word is presented. My pronunciations of the words for “dining room” and the number 26 have been known turn heads.

So it might be a while before I’m saying much useful in Japanese. Instead I’ll be making the most of my (rather brilliant) charade skills to make myself understood and seeking to read the body language of those around me to understand what the hell is going on. Along the way, though, I hope to learn a lot more of the language, and the sponge-like brain of Kawaii should pick up plenty as well. She might even learn more than I do, in which case she can be my pocket translator.

Then there’s my diet: I’m a vegetarian, and have been for 21 years, so it’s probably not just a phase. But the Japanese diet is very heavy with seafood, and my barely-there language skills (see above) might make it tricky for me to eat well, unless I stick to the safe options of Western-style chains and enormous mounds of rice. It may be that I’ll need to relax my vegetarianism, perhaps by getting some fish in my bowl, if only to ward off starvation. As for the culinary tastes of Kawaii, I am fortunate she’s the adventurous type willing to trying anything once. Though probably not this.

And finally there’s my health situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically a non-Hodgkin lymphoma that required four months of chemotherapy that left me tired and weak. I’ve been in remission for more than a year, and am feeling fantastic, but just as the onset of my initial disease was out of the blue (read all about it here), a recurrence might happen that way as well. Still, the medical care in Japan is excellent, and I gather you can get yourself some free radiotherapy just by sunbaking in certain parts of Fukushima.

But those problems are minor quibbles compared to the amazing opportunity that has come our way. There is so much to see, so much to do and so many social taboos to accidentally transgress. I can’t wait.

So please, join me on this adventure through Tokyo via this blog. Along the way you’ll hear stories about life as a Hands-On Dad in the bustling city that is home to about 38 million, including the good, the bad and the thoroughly confusing. I’ll also be writing about non-parenty stuff that catches my attention along the way, like politics, economics and why the hell Japanese people seem keen on getting frisky with robots.

No promises about what lies ahead, but it’s probably going to be a lot of fun.

Any last-minute advice on being a Hands-On Dad, life in Japan or dodging typhoons? Send it my way.

Pic credit: Time Out