Since my family‘s modest travel plans were nixed by the country’s extended fourth state of emergency (or rather, our righteous resolve to abide by it), we had ample opportunity to explore our new neighborhood over the summer holidays. We ended up spending a lot of time at our local sentō (public bath).
With a history dating back to the Nara Period (710-94) in Japan, when only priests and, later, sick people were allowed to enjoy them, sentō may not be as popular as they once were, but they’re still an important part of communal life in Japan.
Judging by the two bathhouses within walking distance of our home, this institution isn’t in danger of disappearing anytime soon. Both places were packed with naked people whenever we went. They are separated by gender, but without much thought given to social distancing. While, at 51 years old, I significantly lowered the average age among the patrons on some visits, I’d often see young dads with their elementary school-age sons, introducing a new generation to the joy of being naked in public.
I also encountered, much to my surprise, several tattooed gentlemen at one of the sentō. Come to think of it, I didn’t see any “no tattoos” signs when entering, but I assumed that was only because they are such a given part of the decor that I fail to notice them anymore. While I remain unillustrated myself, in principle I do stand by my tattooed friends in their fight for the right to strip and soak publicly.
I assumed the body art I saw at my sentō was proper yakuza insignia, the kind of tattoos that are the reason for the ban at most facilities — sentō, gyms, beaches — in the first place. I have to admit my knowledge of this subject is limited to having seen a few Kinji Fukasaku movies. The slicked-back hairstyles of the gentlemen in question also fit the cliches.
Yet, they seemed friendly enough. I accidentally cut in one’s way when we both tried to enter the same tiny whirlpool. “That’s it,” I thought. “My life is over.” But he just graciously let me go first, then entered the pool, too, which could accommodate only one patron comfortably. Is this what Japanese sentō enthusiasts call sukinshippu (“skinship”), the special bond you form with your fellow denuded citizens in hot water?
We didn’t speak much, but that probably isn’t required for true skinship. Even if my Japanese was better than it is, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Probably not, “So … have you organized any interesting crimes lately?” or “So, how about those Yamaguchi-gumi? Aren’t they having a terrible season?”
Among themselves, the tattooed bathers talked quite a lot, which went against the establishment’s very rudimentary antivirus protocols. But I’m not about to shush a group of possible crime lords.
When I later told my Japanese wife about the encounter, she had doubts about my assessment.
“Did you count their fingers?” she asked. “That’s a better indicator.” Sometimes, I wonder if it is me or her who has seen too many old movies.
I don’t know much about the rules of the underworld, but the rules of the sentō are simple. Anyone who has mastered onsen (hot spring) bathing without making a fool of themselves will feel right at home: strip down; soap and rinse every part of your body for an insanely long time; enter the pools and enjoy as long as you can take the heat; wash again; and then you’re free to leave.
If you, like me, leave the sentō to walk out into the summer heat, the entire exercise proves a bit futile. You’ll need to shower again as soon as you are back home.
Meanwhile, my wife and our 7-year-old daughter also had an encounter in the sentō’s women’s section. An elderly lady, the bane of all mixed-race children, approached them and gave the usual cooing appraisal of our daughter’s cuteness and how she could become a model. The woman left, then apparently had a flash of guilt and returned to add, “And Mommy, too.”
We’re all still glad we took up the habit, though. We’ve now got our winter nights sorted.
Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.