Swinging Sento Monkey
If anyone had told me 2 years ago that squatting butt naked on a plastic bucket in front of a waist high shower spigot and a thigh high mirror in a not so large room chock full of other similarly attired gentleman, soaping up then rinsing down in an ever so leisurely fashion could be called a pleasant experience, hell, I’d of thought that fool goofy at best, plain stupid otherwise. But hear I sit tapping away and already planning my next weekly visit to the above emporium, eagerly planning.
First, some details for the uninitiated- I could (don’t worry I won’t) write a fair sized volume on the differences between Japanese and American Culture or what passes for culture in the good ole U. S. of A. but for the purposes of actually having the attention deficit web addicts out there (you know who you are) take more than ten seconds to read this, I’ll keep it as brief as my analog generation can manage.
J-folks drive on the left with the steering wheel on the right
Extremely rare to see fat people of any age (apologies to Oprah and her minions but J-girls just don’t get fat, ever, for any reason. I mean to say that I’ve seen about five million women shaking it down the street these past years and the next time I spot a fat chick I’ll finally have to use my other hand to keep count. There must be a law, thank God)
The portions are small but the meals are huge and endless
The food is fantastic, young and old in great physical condition although almost everyone smokes and drinks like it’s their last day on Earth
The toilets are heated but the houses aren’t
Yea, you read that last one correctly. And I don’t mean that just the poor people’s houses aren’t heated, I mean NOBODYS’ house is heated. The modern miracle of central heating has somehow escaped the second largest economy in the entire world and as far as I can tell, the Nihon-jin (J-folk) ain’t feeling the loss. I am compelled to report in all fairness, however, that your ass does stay roasty toasty while you’re backing one out.
The climate, to be sure, includes winter on all the 4 main islands or should I say WINTER! Nov. through March in Kyoto. I mean real snow, icy wind and bitter mornings when you can see your breath as clearly as your frozen hands. And that’s inside the house. The solutions to this dilemma range from the ridiculous (heated carpets, more space heaters than outlets, hot water bottles and just plain indoor bundling up) to the sublime (kotatsu, a large coffee table with a heating element pinned underneath and an even larger comforter in between allowing the whole family or just you and that special someone to luxuriate inside the wonderful communal warmth, bliss!) and other novel and/or goofy contraptions too numerous to mention here.
And of course, in Kyoto, there is always your reliable neighborhood Sento.
The quick description- Hot Baths. That’s it. Period. But bear with me please while I break it down because to visit your own neighborhood Sento while in the cruel grip of the wicked winter wind is to have a get-the-hell-out-of-jail free card, a three and one half dollar vacation from the bone chilling headlock of refrigerated misery, a steamy hot luxurious respite from that relentless bitch named Winter and it’s always, ALWAYS, a sure-fire smile.
Anyway it works like this- My Sento is a modest affair (most are), a smallish brick building with a unobtrusive but sexycool neon sign outside that looks something like this- ゆ. There is one curtained entrance leading to two separate doors; boys and girls of course. I walk in bundled with every inch of tattoo discreetly covered (Japanese opinions of tattoos are an altogether different subject and I will not digress now but suffice to say that the general opinion is not high), plunk down my three and a half, thank the master profusely yet humbly and hit the lockers. The changing room set-up isn’t all that different from high school except that the lockers are wooden and about the size of a refrigerator shelf, the floor is tatami (nothing better for bare feet) and the main clientele is somewhere between my age (40’s, fuck you too) and ancient. The Sento is bisected with the old shriveled up geezers swinging free on one side and the lovely Ladies on the other. The ceiling is about 25 ft. high and a 10 foot wall keeps us all discreetly divided and focused on the task at hand. This gender separation always strikes me as surprisingly correct and quite manageable. The atmosphere is all about comfort and letting it hang out with zero sex to distract the mind or body.
Why the master never says anything about my tats after I strip is something of a mystery but I am refusing to look any gift horses in the teeth, I just keep my head down and make no noise other than the occasional ‘AAAAAAHHHHHH!” that escapes involuntarily while stretching out in the hot tub. Perhaps he finds my overbearing politeness and caveman face intimidating but I prefer to think that he just doesn’t give a good goddamn. Either way he’s a good old boy and we never say more to each other than “thank you” as I enter and “good night” as I bow deeply and he stares stonily ahead while I exit stage right. Some might find this arrangement somewhat cold and impersonal but I’ve always found impervious professional courtesy most comforting and satisfactory.
So I say my Arigatos, strip and stash my rags in the locker (somehow number 13 is always open for me) while my fellow bathers cut nervous or curious glances in my direction.
Yes it’s an unpleasant reality to have 3 or 4 grown men sneaking peeks at your package while you’re trying to achieve maximum comfort, warmth, solitude and peace but being Gai-jin does occasionally come with its own slight detraction's. Instantly becoming the uninvited center of attention in every single f_ _ _ _ _ g room you walk into is one of them but anyone who has as many tattoos as I do would be disingenuous to say the least if they did not expect to encounter a certain amount of unwanted attention every now and again. I guess I can figure what J-guys are so damn curious about (is the Gai-jin myth true?) and I almost feel sorry to disappoint them but I’ve always considered my own SIZE to be absolutely average (Christ it hurts to even write that) and having no further references in that dept. (other than high school gym class and porno films) I believe my assessment to be painfully accurate and so I almost feel bad for those gawkers, who, after all, only want their public/private stereotypes reassured as I let it swing.
Damn if that doesn’t stop them from scoping though!
Occasionally, around the third time I catch some sorry sad sack peeking, I think of saying,
“Pal- Either take a picture or give me five dollars but the show is over.” Probably would too if I could hash it out in their lingo but, Ugly American that I am, my language skills are not what they should be or could be but hey, I have a dream.
The locker room is maybe 20’ by 15’ and then you enter the glassed enclosed hot bath itself which is approximately the same size but infused with warm steamy bliss enveloping my chilled birthday suit gear, the only sounds are running water and the blessed silence of mute males manfully ignoring each other. You can faintly hear the old hens cackling on the other side of the wall but even that is pleasant in a birds-singing-outside-the-window sort of way. The room itself consists of three different kinds of hot tub (all about 4’ by 4’ with varying degrees of jet pressure and temperatures ranging from warm-your-bones to roast-your-ass), a cold tub, a small sauna(fits maybe 3 Nihon-jin comfortably or 2 fatsos not so), and about 20 shower stalls where all the previously mentioned squatting and soaping take place. The basic idea is to get thoroughly clean and warm at the stalls before using the other facilities to pile on the pleasure. The stalls have a shower spigot (always hot) and hot and cold faucets for filling your plastic bowl and immersing yourself in glowing cleanliness, sublime warmth and total naked ass jailbreak escape from the hawk poised outside the doors. And that’s all before you even get to the hot tub and sauna etc.
For me about an hour will usually do it before I pop my head out and back into the lockers like a newborn babe fresh and oven baked straight from Mamas womb. After a molasses paced process of primping and redressing in my bundled rags and then carefully putting everything back in its proper place, I hit the door for my bowing and goodbyes, damn near dizzy with peace, warmth and something like post orgasmic physical ease. At three and a half beans that is no bad deal to me. Anyway I’m heading back soon for more.
Pleasure, thy name is Sento.