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.