Hot Tub Time Machine… or Rather, “Sento”
By Adam Carter
If someone tells you they have seriously been wanting to go to Japan and the reasons they give you don’t include the Japanese word, onsen, then consider that your clue not to take them too seriously after all. For me, taking a dip in the hot spring waters of at least a few of thousands of onsen that are scattered across this country of volcanic islands was a major motivating factor in my decision to come here. There is something so relieving in imagining taking a hot dip into soothing mineral water while surrounded by snow and ice and fascinating traditional Japanese architecture. At least, that’s what I tried focusing on as I suffered during my fourteen hour flight to arrive just to the continent of Asia. Later on I would find out for myself what it’s like to test the water with my big toe before dropping in chest deep. Although, my first experience in an actual ‘onsen’ would have to wait, first I would bathe in a “sento.” Sento’s are very similar to onsen with two main distinctions. First off, at a sento or ‘public bath house,’ it is important that you wash yourself before you enter the main tub. Yeah, that’s right, you need to bathe before you bathe. Seems like it is contradiction to do it at first, but really it makes sense. Get some of the daily grime that naturally covers you off before you enter a pool of water that you share with strangers. And look, I’m telling you this now because I totally missed this step on my first trip to Dobashi-yu, a local sento in Hiroshima near the Evergreen hostel. Of course since I’m a typical silly foreign traveler, I just waddled my naked butt to the tub in the middle of the room and sat in – not paying enough attention to the people around me (I mean it’s not really polite to watch other naked people bathe themselves either) who were doing it the proper way. Luckily, not too long after I had dipped in I did realize I should rinse myself first. So out I went, to sit in front of a small mirror on a plastic stool wielding a large plastic bowl that I filled under the faucet of the sink in front of me and poured the steaming water over the whole of my body. It was an experience to rinse with such directed heat and feel the steam surrounding me. I hadn’t been bathed like that since I was a baby getting rinsed in the kitchen sink by my mother in our old home. Twenty two years later, I’d be doing it to myself and maybe in the future I’d be doing it to my children. After my rinsing, I would reenter the bubbling bath and close my eyes – focusing on healing the soreness I held on to from traveling and from my last trip to the gym. While focusing I targeted the tender muscles with two fingers and massaged them, teaming up with the hot water. Ah, therapy was in the works and it was so nice to relax. Opening my eyes after my simple meditations I was ready to move to the cold bath to feel the absolute change that it would bring. I felt like blacksmiths steel getting heated up in the forge and hammered on the anvil then sunk in the water to be quenched. After this change I would rinse once more and pat myself dry with my small towel. As simple as it was, there is something so important in taking the time to care for yourself and allow yourself to have therapy. Taking a dip in Hiroshima’s local sento was a good way for me to relax as well as take part in traditions from Old Japan – traditions that last still to this day. While it wasn’t exactly an onsen – that would have to be actual spring water – it prepared me for future visits to onsens that I look forward to.
If you’re staying at The Evergreen Hostel in Hiroshima, I urge you to try a bath in the sento, tattoos are accepted there, and it’s only a short walk away and only five hundred thirty yen with the addition of sitting in the sauna. Oh, did I forget to mention, it’s not really a thing to wear a bathing suit to a sento (or onsen for that matter) but it does separate women and men! For some people, it’s a chance to get out of your comfort zone a bit to try something new and something very Japanese!