The cicadas of July were singing wildly as I made my way through the streets of Kyoto. It was 1987, and this was my first trip to Japan. I had been lucky enough to receive a grant to study Japanese language and culture for a year in an American college, and then to spend a full month in any part of Japan I chose. Since my interests centered on Japanese religions, I of course headed straight for Kyoto. Reading Chinese characters, or kanji, was far beyond me, although I did have a tenuous grasp of the Japanese syllabary. Reading the street signs, however, was out of the question, and I had a feeling, both terrifying and liberating, of being an illiterate three year old.
I had arranged to stay at a temple lodging, a shukubo called Myoren-ji, in the Nishijin area on the northwestern side of town. After wandering the neighborhood for an hour or so, I luckily discovered a narrow wooden temple gate opening onto a long stone path that I followed to the door of the lodging. On my calling hello, the door was opened by a smiling woman of about 60. Her name was Iida-san, and during this and subsequent stays at her temple, we became good friends.
She poured me a cup of tea, and in very good English explained that I would be sleeping on a futon in a lovely tatami room opening onto an inner garden. She continued that I could assist the priests with chanting in the morning at 6:30, and she would serve breakfast at 8. So far so good, but then the idyll ended, and my neophyte’s heart skipped a beat. There were no bathing facilities at the temple, she said, but she would give me a bathing bucket, soap, a towel, and a ticket each day for the sento just around the corner. I was going to become much more intimate with the Japanese people than I had anticipated.
That evening at around 6 o’clock, I found the sento. I pushed through the noren curtain at the entrance, having no idea what I would find on the other side. I immediately found myself facing a high desk manned (and I use that word advisedly) by a Japanese woman in her 80’s. She immediately sensed my discomfort, imperiously snatched the ticket out of my hand, and disdainfully tossed her head in the direction of a door to her right. The pink door on her left was clearly not for me, so I figured I would at least be spared a bi-sexual bath.
I passed through the blue door, and found myself in a small locker room. This wasn’t too different from my high school, so I quickly and completely disrobed, locked my locker, and hanging the key on my wrist, opened the door at the other end of room.
Now I was in another world. Along one wall there was a series of spigots perhaps a foot off the floor. Along the other side of the room were three steaming tubs that I will describe in a minute. Four naked men were each sitting in front of a spigot on a tiny plastic stool on which one was expected to sit while washing. My first fear was that I would never make it down to the stool, and look foolish suspended in mid-air. I did make it, however, and then tried surreptitiously to watch the other men in order to learn the protocol. You filled your bucket with water and poured it over yourself, and soaped vigorously from head to foot. It then required many buckets full of water to rinse. I can’t tell you how awkward I felt, sitting cheek to jowl with a bunch of strangers, trying to bathe in a tiny bucket.
At least I had remembered that one washed thoroughly before getting into a tub. But now it was tub time. There were three tubs from which to choose. The first was filled with a bilious looking green concoction. The second was filled with clear water, but one finger told me it was beyond hot. As I stuck my hand into the third tub, I was literally shocked by a pulsing current of electricity coursing through the water. My only option was green, and it was actually quite relaxing. After a ten minute soak, I met the final challenge of the night: drying myself with a tiny wet towel. Believe it or not, it worked, and I headed out into the Kyoto night with a feeling of accomplishment.
The second night went off without a hitch, and on the third night I confidently strode into the sento like a seasoned Japan hand. The old woman even greeted me with what seemed like a friendly nod, and chatted away. Her lack of teeth, however, did not help my fledgling understanding of Japanese. At any rate, i was walking tall as I entered the locker room and began to undress. Suddenly my fingers froze on the third button of my shirt. The outer door of the room burst open, and the ancient ticket-taker walked in trailing three of her cronies. They were carrying folding chairs that they set up right behind me, and settled in for their evening’s entertainment. I didn’t have the nerve to bolt into the night, so the only thing for it was to continue disrobing with as much aplomb as I could muster. Every piece of clothing that disappeared into my locker was greeted by hoots, waves of laughter, and a running commentary in Japanese whose meaning was both unintelligible and unmistakable. I finally turned to them and offered the full monty with a deep formal bow. They applauded my performance like school girls, and their raucous laughter pursued me as I escaped into the tub room with a red face and a white bottom.
I soaked for as long as I could, and was relieved to find that they were nowhere to be seen as I dressed in the locker room. On returning to the temple, I recounted the story to Iida-san, and she began to laugh as hard as the sento ladies had. “Oh John-san,” she said. “They are not used to seeing western men naked, and they were enjoying your hairy body.” A week later, I told the story to my American friend, Birger. He, too, laughed, and then asked “Did you understand anything at all?” “Well,” I said, “I did pick up the word ‘saru,’ which means monkey.” “Well, old buddy,” he said, “at least they got something right.”