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OCT 11, 2013

Of Place and Wind 1: Super sentō

By Tetsuya Kaida

Tetsuya Kaida explores the cultural uniqueness of Japanese public bathing establishments known as ‘super sentō’.

The super sentō is another place I often go to. The name might not tell you much. These days, Japan abounds in bathing establishments for the general public known as ‘super sentō’. My favorite in the area where I live is called ‘Thermal Waters of the Dragon Spring Temple’. Of course, there is no dragon to be seen and no particular connection with a temple either. Nor is the atmosphere in any way suggestive of one.

Every region in Japan boasts its share of hot springs. Non-Japanese people who have spent some time in the country might have visited one or two. However, with their characteristic ‘place’ and ‘wind’ intended for everyday relaxation and their easily accessible location in the city center or the suburbs, super sentō are quite unlike traditional hot springs or Japanese-style inns featuring thermal baths. They might well be called ‘konbini hot springs’. (For those unfamiliar with the Japanese term, ‘konbini’ is the abbreviation of ‘convenience’). Despite the ‘convenience’ element, some super sentō use real thermal water which is pumped in from an underground hot spring. I am not acquainted with the intricacies of the subject, but I imagine that the Japanese archipelago must have lots of thermal water veins flowing at various depths beneath the ground.

As you arrive at this super sentō, which has become my preferred relaxation oasis, you cannot miss the word ‘GRATITUDE’ written in large characters at the entrance. The accompanying text reads:

“Thank you for coming to the Thermal Waters of the Dragon Spring Temple today. The blessings of the natural hot spring, gushing out from the depths of the earth, will nourish your skin and melt away the day’s fatigue so that you can return home with an invigorated mind and body. Our staff will spare no effort to provide you with the highest standards of hospitality and service. Have a pleasant stay”.

Allow me now to take you on a brief tour of the super sentō. Inside, it offers an impressive assortment of baths with features including carbonated water, strong jets supposed to shape up your body, electric baths, cold water baths, kids’ baths… Once you step out through the double door that keeps the wind out, you find open-air tubs filled with so-called ‘silk water’, a rock bath with a large TV screen and a tower roof, baths in which you can either lie or sit, and earthen pot baths, along with plenty of chairs and beds to rest on. The Korean ocher tiles in the sauna are said to have a detoxifying effect. In the changing room, a small indoor garden brings in an echo of the natural world.

On the second floor, there are several bedrock baths using Germanium, rock salt or clay, a Korean kiln sauna known as han jeung mak, a cooling room, two halls that can accommodate quite a large number of people dozing off on straw mats and even a rooftop terrace where you can drape yourself on a lounge chair and let the wind cool your skin.

The selection of massages on offer is amazing, with everything ranging from the most delicate to the most vigorous. You can ask for a Japanese body alignment massage, foot reflexology treatment, detoxifying gymnastics, or Thai, Korean and Taiwanese massage. Special programs for women include facials, cosmetic treatments, leg therapies, hand massage and several types of skin scrubbing.

The restaurant features an original menu with seasonal ingredients, a breakfast course, as well as red bean and green tea desserts. At the shot bar, you can order freshly squeezed fruit juice, ice cream or a bowl of shaved ice. In addition, several game machines and vending machines selling a variety of drinks are lined against the wall.

While some of the functions and services may be superfluous, I believe that the existence of such conveniently located, daily public baths plays an important role in maintaining the health, beauty and longevity of the Japanese people and in giving them a certain peace of mind, while also fueling friendships and family love. Each trip abroad has been an opportunity to reconfirm this truth with my body and soul.

What I wonder is if in Japan we are healthy because such places can be found around every corner, or if we create them because the Japanese tend to pursue healthiness by their very nature. As with any chicken and egg scenario, both possibilities should be given equal credit.

A super sentō has its doors open twenty-one hours a day, from six in the morning until three the next morning. The remaining three hours are used to change the water and clean the entire facility. Of course, even during open hours, the water in the tubs is constantly being purified by activated charcoal and the floors are cleaned and mats changed with religious regularity. There is absolutely no discomfort or worry about cleanliness despite the large number of visitors.

All you need to pay for these services is a 500-yen fee. It costs an additional 200 yen to use the bedrock baths, but they lend you a cotton bathrobe for it. And if you arrive early in the morning, you get a 100 yen discount.

That’s the way it goes. And again, such a place exists nowhere but in Japan.

What I want to emphasize here are not just the health and beauty effects of these Japanese bathing places, nor how clean and comfortable they are. I am more concerned with the significance they hold for their users, which goes far beyond the mere act of taking a bath.

Once you pass through the two sliding doors, you remove your footwear before stepping onto the elevated flooring, to avoid bringing dirt inside. In the changing room, behavior is unceremonious, but mindful of other people. You may need to stand aside and make room for your neighbor to pass. In the bathroom, you are expected to first pour some water over your body before joining the others in the tub. The towel can be used to wipe your face, or otherwise can be placed on top of your head, but it should never be dipped in the bath water. You soak surrounded by clouds of steam while maintaining an appropriate distance from the many strangers around you. Once out of the water, casual conversation is acceptable as long as you do not disturb anyone. In the outdoor bath, you find yourself enraptured by the changing colors of the seasons, as the wind gently caresses your face. Rain falling from the sky moistens your skin every now and then, while in winter the freezing floor makes you raise your toes at every step. At night, inspired by the moonlight and the dim clouds, you recall the memories of the day and wallow in anticipation of tomorrow.

Even in the washing area, people sitting next to each other try not to splash water or suds on their neighbors. The bath room and changing room are connected by an ‘interstitial space’ where the last water and perspiration droplets are wiped off, ensuring that the floor in the changing room is almost never wet. Given the surprisingly small size of the lockers, leaving non-essentials at home is an absolute prerequisite before a visit to the bath.

In many ways, such public bathing ‘places’ provide an environment where parents can teach children about life and transience, care and consideration for others, restraint and shyness, and where these behavioral lessons are literally taken in through the skin. Even the casual conversations of university students give the impression that a certain growth is taking place inadvertently, based on what is experienced and learned here.

The use of public baths probably became widespread during the Edo period. Ever since, it has remained one of the major cultural traditions of bathing in Japan. Public baths have absorbed the ‘winds’ of change of each historical era and season. The ‘bathing etiquette’ developed in the process has allowed people to indulge in the pleasures of bathing without inconveniencing one another and has taught them the importance of coexistence and mutual respect.

The Japanese culture of interpersonal relationships and etiquette is very complex. It encompasses not only the various rules of decorum, but also traditions such as the tea ceremony, also called the ‘Way of Tea’, and ikebana, or the ‘Way of Flower Arrangement’. But nowadays it is becoming increasingly difficult to encounter people who are versed in these traditions and the tea ceremony no longer is part of everyday life.

Be that as it may, super sentō are very popular in Japan, with men and women, young and old. In my own case, the super sentō is the first place I head to when I return from work, from a trip abroad or from any kind of outing.

At the end, as you leave the bath and prepare to return home, you notice the characters for ‘AUSPICIOUS CONNECTIONS’ drawn on the wall, together with the following message:

“Thank you for visiting the Thermal Waters of the Dragon Spring Temple today. With smiles on our faces, we will keep striving to broaden the circle of happiness that was created through the auspicious connection of our encounter. We will look forward to seeing you again. Please take care on your way back”.

I would like to take this opportunity to express my most heartfelt gratitude to Japan’s magnificent super sentō.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)