Baka-Gaijin II : Sento and the Art of Survival
As I sit in my Japanese language class, I can’t help but feel that the odds are stacked against me. I copy down more and more vocabulary from the whiteboard, begrudgingly, whilst glancing at my watch. I make a mental check-list of experiments, seminars and emails that I’d rather be sending. Working in Japan on a Japanese schedule whilst trying to keep some semblance of a social life makes any unwanted intrusion time all the more unwelcome. Whilst I realise that languages broaden the mind, right now I’d rather keep it narrow and focussed on getting back to work. How useful could it be? “Survival Japanese”. The name seems fitting. Survival is a state of prolonging existence regardless of cost- it is not thriving. Ray Mears thrives. Bear Grylls survives. In the wilderness, drinking your own piss is the equivalent of asking what time the swimming pool closes.
It goes without saying that travel opens your mind to new concepts and teaches you new languages, however, there is only so much than can be learned from classes and books. This is why language students spend a year abroad- the nuances of language and culture are not learned in the classroom, but in the shops, the bars and, in my case, when sitting naked in a hot-tub with a dozen or so middle-aged Japanese dudes.
For travellers to Japan, there are many places that merit a visit- Akihabara, Kinkaku-ji, Mt Fuji- but if one has the opportunity, I would highly recommend a sento or public spa. Nestled amongst the peaceful mountains, ancient sento draw their water directly from volcanic hot springs, hot and enriched with invigorating minerals. Yokohama, however, is miles from the mountains. Just around the corner from the Nissin Cup Noodle Museum, an unassuming tower block houses a multi-story spa complex decked out with period décor. Efforts to mimic historic buildings often come off as a bit cheesy. This was no exception, but the popularity of the place was undeniable. This is a place people come to relax and unwind after a busy week or three. After entering, I quickly shed my shoes and clothes, walked through the door curtain marked “男” (thanks, Survival Japanese!) and blindly tried to navigate the various rules of etiquette regarding pre-washing, soaking and how much of your junk to show. Judging by the old men walking around the heated pools, the answer is “all of the junk”.
I’d barely slipped into the tub before someone sitting on my right struck up a conversation. I panicked. In a mixture of Japanese and English, we blundered through self-introductions, where we’d come from, facts about the hot springs. Without my notes and dictionary, I barely contained my awkwardness as I grasped for linguistic crutches. When he left, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Two things struck me as markedly different from my homeland. There was no awkward cupping and shuffling lest you expose yourself. Far removed from my earliest experiences of public bathing, changing after primary school swimming lessons and getting beat up because you were “gay if you looked” (I’m not sure 8-year olds are experts on human sexuality, especially considering how liking girls also made you a “gaylord”). Furthermore I could not expect to go somewhere where wearing shirts is discouraged without seeing at least one terrible (read: tribal) tattoo. Sento are strictly ink-free zones, the connotations of yakuza being too hard to shake. Yet another reason to be glad I chickened out getting that Black Flag tat.
After towelling off, we headed to the on-site bar for some much needed refreshment before a cheeky nap in the relaxation suite. A very enjoyable day out, by any metric, and a glance into a real Japanese institution. I was halfway home before I realised what had happened. The old man’s name was Itou-san. He was from Chiba. The swimming pool closed at 9pm. I’d been tricked into a Japanese lesson- and on my day off too!