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Saturday, Sept. 27, 2003
Public baths: naked amusement parks
By AMY CHAVEZ
Want some culture? Go the "sento," or public bath. Not one of those fancy, remodeled ones, but an old, downtrodden one. The best sentos are found in old neighborhoods. Look at the people going in and out. No one should be under the age of 80. These people have been going to the sento their whole lives and probably still live in houses that don't have baths. This is good, because you will see how people use these traditional public baths.
When you walk in, you'll walk into a big room with naked people. This is the changing room, where people will be in various stages of balancing on one leg as they stick the other leg in or out of their slacks. The naked ones fanning themselves are the ones who have just finished soaking in the bath and are so hot, they're about to faint. The fans, provided by the sento, are a form of CPR meant to revive you.
I like to do some warmup activities before getting into the bath, which is another good reason to choose an old sento, because they always have old clunker "misfitness machines" in various stages of disrepair. Think of sentos as the first amusement parks in Japan.
First, weigh yourself on the ancient Kamoshita Seikosho scale. This may set you back 10 yen, but you'll get an idea of how much water you'll displace when you get into the bathtub. I am not suggesting you are fat. Even myself, at 47 kg, am a dinosaur compared to the naked "o-bachans" fluttering around the room like leaves, propelled by the side winds from the fans. These o-bachans are so light, they even float on top of the water in the bath.
Next, I suggest you take a ride on one of the machines such as the "Family Belter." This machine is the one with a vibrating belt that you lean into. It works like a milkshake machine shaking up the contents inside your stomach. This is supposed to jiggle fat off your waist, but I think it works by making you so sick, you heave all the contents out of your stomach. The last time I rode the Family Belter, no matter how often I turned the machine to "off," the machine would not off. Eventually, even the sento owner peeked out to watch the gyrating "gaijin." The machine finally did stop, after my full 100 yen worth of gyrating, but for days after I'd still feel my stomach jiggle, the way you feel like you're still on a boat even after you're off.
After your warmup activities, it's time to take a bath. You should have a small hand towel with you. If you didn't bring one, you can rent one for about 50 yen. This towel is multifunctional, but first you'll be using it as a fig leaf. Just casually drape it over your private parts, as if it was perfectly natural to walk around shaded by the leaf from a terry cloth fig tree. Just imagine yourself as a modern Adam or Eve. Once you get into the room with the large bath, you'll use your fig leaf as a wash cloth. Lather up and down and wash your hair before you get into the bath.
Or should I say, attempt to get into the bath.
Although the old people slide in and out of the bath with ease, you'll probably find it a halting experience. You'll slide in a smidgen, let out an "Ouch!" then slide in another smidgen. The important thing to remember is that the water will not burn you. It feels like it will, but since they've stopped heating the water just short of the boiling point, you'll just come out feeling just a little tender, like a carrot ready to be added to someone's stir-fry. Once you get out, run the fig leaf over your body, then go immediately to the changing room to fan yourself.
Once dressed, be sure to dry your hair using the old-style globe hair dryers with small tornadoes inside them. Put 20 yen in the slot and lower the globe over your head. Don't be alarmed when your hair starts whipping around in circles on top of your head. This is what you want.
Now clean and tender, with your tornado hairstyle, you're ready to go out on the town.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web site: www.amychavez.com