Get your mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about my Japanese Sento experience!
In the United States, we have Happy Hour. At the end of a grueling workday (and in most cases, “grueling day” not required), you leave your “9 to 5” to seek respite in your local restaurant or bar. There, your long day of work is rewarded with half-priced drinks, appetizers and the camaraderie of your local bartender, coworkers, and friends. You commiserate over that ever-looming project deadline, that co-worker who keeps stealing your lunch from the fridge, or that temp who didn’t get the memo that obnoxious colognes shouldn’t be worn to the office. In the U.S., the Happy Hour is the perfect place to end the day and let off steam.
Not so much in Japan. Enter the sento — a Japanese communal bath and Japan’s answer to Happy Hour!
Sentos are indoor pools that serve as communal baths; not to be confused with onsens, which are Japanese hot springs. Onsens are the result of Japan’s island nature and volcanic activity which supply the geothermally heated water for hot springs all over the country. The government must officially give the title of onsen to verify the presence of a true hot spring. While Kyoto, Japan, my home for the next month, is known for its drinking culture, the sento is the Kyoto working person’s answer to a long day of work. A trip to a sento to relax and relieve sore backs and muscles is the perfect way to end the day. I decided to give it a try.
There was just one catch: it’s communal and EVERYONE is NAKED!
Let’s take a moment for context. I’m body-shy and body-conscious. I was the 7th-grader who perfected the art of changing out in P.E. with not so much as a flash of skin visible. I’m the twenty-something who wore a cover-up to pools and the beach for the better part of a decade because I didn’t want people to see the stretch marks I developed due to treatment for a serious childhood illness. I’m the late thirty-something who purchased a summer dress on the streets of the Walled-City of Cartagena, Colombia, and when I departed, left said dress in my hotel room because it garnered too much attention the first and only time I wore it. And now, I’d willingly chosen to unrobe down to my birthday suit in front of a room full of both travel companions and strangers — all in the name of culture and new experiences! My only saving grace was at least men and women were separated!
This was not an easy feat to overcome. Some might even say I freaked out a bit at the doors of the onsen. Who am I kidding?!? They would ALL say I freaked out! But my travel companions assured me I could do this. I could “burst the bubble” of my norm. I could conquer the self-consciousness around my body and the concern for others seeing it. I could focus on the fact that everyone else would be naked and likely having some of the same thoughts I was — even if that might not be true. I took a few deep breaths.
I told myself, “This is your body. Own it. Be proud of it. Those scars? Those stretch marks? They are yours and they have a wonderful story. You CAN do this!”
And then, we walked in…
Instantly, my anxiety over being naked in front of a group of travel companions and strangers gave way to the concern for hygiene.
More context. I’m a physician by skill and trade. I specialized in caring for children who were immunocompromised; not because of their illnesses but due to the medications used to treat their autoimmune diseases. As a result, for the past decade, I’ve been OBSESSED with cleanliness — handwashing, hand sanitizer, sneezing into your sleeve, not eating or drinking after people. Why? For my patients, infections could be the difference in life or death. I took hygiene and cleanliness seriously.
What does the above have to do with my sento experience? The makings of another nervous breakdown! There are rules, procedures if you will, that one must follow before soaking in the healing and relaxing baths of the sento — rules that sent me on a downwards spiral!
- All shoes are left at the entry of the sento. At the front desk, you can purchase a towel for “modesty” and for drying off. Spoiler alert: they are hand towels and some parts of my body (use your imagination) didn’t get the opportunity to be modest!
- Once going to the designated space (men on one side and women on the other) you must be completely naked, hair tied back (not a problem for me! #shorthairdontcare), and make up removed before entering the communal bath.
- Once you enter, grab a plastic stool and a small bucket. Here’s where I started to panic. You sit on the stool (standing is not allowed) and wash yourself; as in you take a shower (nether regions included) and wash your hair (if so desired) while sitting on the stool. Shampoo, conditioner and shower gel are provided. There’s a faucet/shower drain immediately above you for rinsing off. Thoughts going through my head during this process: “If I’m sitting here naked, how many other booties sat here naked? When was the last time these stools were washed/sanitized? I’m sitting spread eagle on a stool. Yep. This is one for the record books. Who washes the towels? Are the towels washed in hot water? Does the bathing beforehand really help with cleanliness? Are sentos like hot tubs and ripe with the opportunity for infection? Will a UTI await me 48 hours from now? Am I going to get Legionella pneumonia?” Yeah. Your girl was in full freak out mode. My many years in medicine preaching hygiene and cleanliness had my stream of consciousness and worry in full effect!
- After washing and rinsing, you enter the bath. There can be no traces of soap or shampoo on your body or in your hair when you enter the bath. Likewise, as you can imagine, you cannot enter the bath if you are menstruating.
I somehow managed to overcome all my worries and fears, complete the public showering process, and enter the communal bath. My nude body was on full display but I was doing it! I was proud of myself! I stepped into the hot pool and I somehow forgot that I was supposed to be worrying!
This particular sento had 4 pools: cold, warm, hot annnnnnnd, ELECTRIC! I oscillated between each of the pools — first hot, then warm, then electric, then cold! I repeated this pattern for over an hour and it was one of the most relaxing and soothing experiences I’ve ever had. There was also a sauna but I’m a wimp and only lasted 5 minutes in there! After overcoming my initial fear of being electrocuted (I may have a problem!), I decided to try the electric pool — known as a denkiburo! It’s a small pool with electric plates on either side that allow for small amounts of electrical current to run through the water. The currents are supposed to be good for back pain, shoulder pain and sore muscles. I’d liken the sensation of the electric bath to the feeling you get when your “foot falls asleep,” except the sensation is in whatever part of your body is exposed to the currents. The currents also make your arms, legs, and feet jump! It was like being a puppet! The closer you are to the plates, the more intense the sensation. Despite my initial trepidation, it was quite an exhilarating experience!
In fact, the entire experience was exhilarating! I conquered fears, I erased doubt, I quieted my mind and I took part in a tradition near and dear to Japanese culture. When I emerged from the baths, put on my clothes and walked out, I truly felt renewed. My body was clean and relaxed but more importantly, my mind and resolve for what I could do if I put fear aside, was put to the test and I was victorious. And just in case you’re wondering, I’m still healthy. No Legionella or UTI to date!