I assumed it was akin to taking a bath at home, just in a bigger tub with a bunch of strangers. But there was an entire protocol I was unaware of, making my first sento confusing and awkward.
The hotel I was staying at gave me a dressing gown (later learning it was a yukatta), a large bath towel, a small hand towel and no instructions. Of course, I would dry myself afterwards with the large towel. I knew that much.
But having never used a smaller, secondary towel for bathing, I was at a loss for it’s purpose, only ever using one to dry my hands.
I thought it unnecessary to wear the yukatta, thinking of it more as a costume than anything else. Was I expected to change into this to enter the sento? Or would I change into it after? And are people naked under there anyway? It felt foreign and inappropriate to be naked under such a fancy-looking garment.
I suddenly became hyperaware of my Gaijin-ness and slightly anxious of perpetuating any negative foreigner stereotype.
But I proceed, and as if I was entering a bathroom to take a shower, I take the large towel into the wet room (not knowing correct sento terminology, I refer to the changing area as the ‘dry room’ and the area with the actual bath as the ‘wet room’). I looked for a place to hang my towel, but there were no hooks or rails.
‘If I don’t take this towel, how am I to dry myself afterwards?’ I knew I couldn’t enter back into the dry room sopping wet, having the perception that Japanese people are super mindful of such things.
At a complete loss, I get dressed again and go back to my room. I called a friend to ask about sento protocol. Her answer – “You’re a foreigner. You can get away with anything”. Not wanting to use my Gaijin Card, I asked her to give a bit more information. She advised me to wait until someone entered and watch how they do it.
So upon re-entering, two older women arrive. In the changing area, out of the corner of my eye I watch them whilst trying to respect their privacy. After undressing they take only the small towel into the wet room. ‘Ah, this towel must be their drying towel! And they keep it on their heads to keep it dry, like I’ve seen in pictures’. But they proceed to the showers and I see that they’re washing themselves with said towel… okay, I guess I’m not exiting this room dry. (Later I learned that this small towel is indeed used to rid of the excess water on your body before exiting the wet room into the dry room).
I select a shower, and see a seat and bucket at my station. I was a child the last time I used a bucket for bathing, and made completely redundant by the hand-held shower head, I move the bucket aside and proceed with the only thing that is familiar to me right now – washing my own body… with two naked strangers nearby.
So now I’m clean and ready to enter the bath. Usually I’d swim in a body of water this big, but the sign on the wall shows a picture of a person swimming with a big, red X over it.
So I sit.
I quickly grow bored, and uncomfortably hot. About 5 minutes pass (which seems longer when you’re not doing anything) and I exit. Feeling like a naughty foreigner, I enter the dry room with water dripping off me and dash for the safety of my large towel.
Since then, I’ve learned proper sento protocol and have enjoyed them immensely. And the protocol makes such perfect sense to me now that I couldn’t imagine another way of doing it.
This experience got me thinking about the times I’ve rolled my eyes at someone for not using their common sense. Common sense is learned and not universal. So next time someone does something I think is kind of stupid, I’ll ask myself “is it really common sense, and is it actually obvious?”