I decided to hop on a bullet train and spend my first weekend in Japan in Kyoto. It’s about 90 miles away, but as the train gets up to 175 mph, the journey only takes 35 minutes and there’s a train every ten minutes or so – what an amazing service! It’s fairly expensive – £28 for a single ticket on Friday, and £36 to get back on Sunday – but the trains are immaculately clean, with reclining seats and a snack trolley, and of course they are on time, down to the very last second.
When I got to my hotel, I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure to discover that they had a sento – a public bath – for their guests to enjoy. I knew I’d have to try one some time while I’m in Japan – I just didn’t realise it would be quite so soon.
The receptionist gave me an etiquette sheet, which I studied carefully –
The leaflet also explained how the Japanese manage to be so efficient; they appear to have 25 hours in their day, unlike the rest of us.
Once I’d read it, it was time to go … before I changed my mind. So I put on the special shoes –
– and changed into the special pyjamas for wearing to and from the sento –
– and I was good to go.
The baths are strictly segregated, which is apparently a modern phenomenon, and mixed bathing used to be the norm. I can’t yet understand how people who are so modest that even a millimetre of cleavage is unacceptable, will quite happily strip off and show all their saggy, flabby bits to friends and strangers alike. I have to confess that I was very relieved that my first sento experience was in front of total strangers – but most women there were in groups, chatting away unconcernedly together.
I used my colour-coded female room key to open the door, took a deep breath and walked in. The changing room was full of women dressing, undressing, sitting at vanity tables with hair dryers – just like any old gym. So this bit was easy – I undressed and locked my basket of clothes in a locker.
Then came the difficult part. I opened the door to the sento, which was like opening the door into a sauna, and could see all the women doing the pre-bathing wash at the showers around the edges of the room. They all had a white wash cloth, and I didn’t – but a very kind woman rinsed hers out and gave it to me, so I felt less of a conspicuous newbie.
I knew from the etiquette sheet that you mustn’t splash your neighbours when showering, but that’s quite difficult, as the wash stations are all quite close together –
I found this pic online, just to show you, as there is obviously no photography allowed inside the sento.
Once I was scrubbed clean, I went down the steps into the large bath, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else. I was surprised by how hot is was, but there are two levels of seating, so you can be immersed up to your neck, or just to your waist, or even sit on the edge and just dangle your legs in the water.
Once I’d sat down, an elderly lady came over and sat beside me and struck up a conversation. So there we were, discussing her grandson who’s at university in Nagoya, just as though we were at any social occasion – the only difference was that we didn’t have any clothes on.
I was a little disconcerted that she had a small towel plonked at a rakish angle on her head, and it stayed there the whole time she was talking to me. I wondered if she was perhaps a little eccentric or confused, but afterwards I found a very good website, Sento For Beginners, which explained that you must never put a towel or your head in the water, so people often put the towel on their head to keep it out of the way.
After ten minutes of sweating and conversation, I got out, showered again and got dressed, feeling a great sense of achievement.
And you know what? I went back the next day and did it all again. So now I feel that I’m practically a sento pro.