So once again I’m kicking it at my local hot bath, soaping up my hangdown while I’m squatting on a plastic bucket in front of a thigh high mirror like some third world peasant on a first world vacation and I’m loving every minute of it. Butt naked, oven warm, squeaky clean and my body feels like melted butter, all for three and one-half hundred yen($3.50). In Kyoto it’s about the best deal I can find and the Master never busts my balls about my tattoos so I come to his place at least once a week to enjoy my usual R&R.
My J-friends assure me that most Gai-jin don’t patronize the Sento and, in fact, Sentos are genuinely unpopular with foreigners. If my neighborhood one is any clear indication then the observation is most certainly true because although I’ve visited on many many occasions I’ve never ever encountered any round eyes except for in the mirror. Whether it’s the hygiene factor or the Old-Guys-Staring-at-Your-Crotch factor I’m not sure but to me it’s just as well. I’m comfortable with my solitude and lack of companionship in my warm little Sento cave, hell, on most days I feel like a King in his own private spa or at least like a half-assed celebrity on a paid vacation. It’s true that I am somewhat a target of unwanted attention but ultimately no one imposes on my peace and I have yet to have anything resembling a conversation so I can very easily settle for that in lieu of charging viewing fees for gawking at my package. There are certain sacrifices we as Gai-jin are required to make.
So imagine my surprise when the Yakuza decided to bust in on my home turf. Allow me to paint the picture.
Here I am all warm and cozy, naked as a new born babe, fresh, clean, relaxed, smooth and cool as Steve McQueen in Bullitt when in marches an arrogant trio of some of the nastiest looking characters I’ve seen on this side of the ocean. Did I say march? I meant Strut! These three cockwalk into the lockers like they own the place but are considering its sale (and given what I know of the mysterious financial connections of their gangster brethren back home this may be an actually accurate appraisal) then proceed to strip in the middle of the room like Movie stars getting ready for their close-ups. It is immediately and wordlessly clear that the eldest (around 50 I would guess) is the undisputed leader and vicious looking boss of the bunch as he only has to grunt or gesture to send his other two lackeys (30ish) scurrying to fetch him something or otherwise STAY THE FUCK OUT OF HIS WAY! The Boss has the full and most impressive collar to ankle tattoos and flashes them as if he earned every inch of the pain, the other two have arm sleeves and full backs but theirs don’t compare in any way to the boss’ macho display of full body ink. Although older and physically smaller (the other two are quite large by J-standards, both being healthy sized 6-footers) the Boss packs the cruel cold eyes of a snake, the tight muscular build of a tough middleweight, skin like leather, seems twice as hard as marble and more than a match for either flunky. He appears very comfortable giving orders and they appear very grateful to follow them. I for my part understand the nature of the relationship, being from Chicago and familiar with all manner of gangster, gangbanger or just plain criminal type. His very presence sets off the old homeboy alarm bells of my psyche- DANGER, DANGER, BAD MAN IN CLOSE PROXIMITY! EYES OPEN, CHIN DOWN! MAKE NO SUDDEN MOVES! PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION!
Then they bust into the bath like they’re robbing a bank. Now I have to remind the reader that I am, at that moment, in the most vulnerable position a man can find himself- naked, on my ass with my back to the door. The Trio swarm into the room and commandeer a spot for the Boss almost directly behind me while the other two stand sentry; alert and scanning for trouble I can only imagine but suffice to say that my heart did pick up the pace a couple of beats. The Boss continues his grim Scarface routine, pointing, ordering and generally lording it over all of us gentle patrons (I am one of the 3 other non-yakuza in the room and of course the only gai-jin) who are quite suddenly frozen on our buckets like Sento sculpture. I keep my eyes firmly in the mirror and look sharp without looking obvious, I hope, but it’s a very cozy room and all this new proximity has my confidence draining faster than the water at my toes.
Here’s what I ascertain through my not so steady observation- These guys are in a FUCKING HURRY! The Boss darts around like a hungry barracuda and his gofers follow like pilot fish waiting for scraps; The Man almost dives into the hot tub, sits for almost a minute then jumps out only to stalk into the sauna which his flunky has already cleared for him, and him alone, and which said flunky then stands guard at while Capone gets his steam on; considering the usual glacial pace that is standardly practiced on this turf the jarring incongruity of their storm trooping is somewhat disconcerting to say the most. After all of a minute or two he exits and retrieves his spot while the other two fetch his toiletries and in case you were wondering, NO, nobody else has so much as moved an inch during their frenetic tour. The flunkies must be on the clock and this trip can’t be much fun for them because all they do is hawk the room, scout the entrance and scramble for His goods. I tell you this sort of situation can make a naked weaponless man downright nervous. Is there some gang war going on that I am unaware of? Will a squad of Yakuza hit men burst in at any moment, Godfather style, and unleash a hail of automatic weapons fire? Shit! They won’t use swords, will they? And lastly- Can I make it over that wall in time? Unfortunately I do not respond well to nerves because quite suddenly I get the overwhelming urge to slide into the currently vacant cold tub which is inches away from where the Boys are stationed.
But Dammit I need some cold tub!
I figure as long as I keep my head down and don’t upset any apple carts I’ll probably be OK. Probably. I stand up ever so slowly and deliberately so that they can see that I, of course sir, am absolutely no threat to your criminal organization and am quite clearly no round eye assassin sent to make a hit. NOW THOSE OTHER GUYS, HEY I’M NOT SO SURE ABOUT THEM, sir. As I turn to the tub one of the hawks taps the boss, who is squatting in front of his own mirror, on his shoulder and the Man hits me with the hard eye although I am using nothing but the most peripheral of visions at this time. For about a step and a half I am the center of attention until the Boss nonchalantly goes back to his hygiene and the entire room seems to immediately defuse.
I’m almost insulted.
It appears that I have not raised any alarms on their threat assessment meters, I have been coldly judged harmless and unworthy of attention. I skulk into the cold tub and fume but not too sincerely.
I switch tubs and my near (you know, like pretty near, like the moon is near the sun) heroic actions definitely have an effect on my fellow patrons, the entire room seems to relax and take a breath. The Boss finishes up and the terrible Trio all make a clean getaway while I’m still tubbing merrily along. I peer through the glass as the Man raises his arms in the locker room with his legs spread into a human X and the gofers rush to towel him off as he proudly stands there, a King waiting for his wardrobe. Surprisingly he takes care of dressing himself while the other two scurry to finish their own dressing in time with him, then they all prison break out the door. From the moment they walked in to when they walked out couldn’t have been 20 minutes total, some kind of record I figure or perhaps Yakuza SOP. Maybe next time I’ll ask but I doubt it.
After they’re gone one of the old guys in the bath cracks wise about something and the other two laugh out loud, a good happy laugh. I smile along with the gag.
I almost wish those two Yakuza slugs could’ve joined in the chuckle because they sure looked like they could’ve used one. I bet the Boss Man laughs all he wants and when I left that night I was pretty pleased myself.