Remembering baths long gone

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Flickr Commons (Hiro)

ge brings the nostalgia. It seems that you daily discover something that you once knew or enjoyed that is not only past but gone completely. Not just events but buildings and places that disappear or become lost in other larger newer constructions. This is normal and part of everyone’s life with memories of their cultural heritage.

It gets interesting when you stumble on things in other cultures that you are connected to and realize that you have nostalgia for things lost there, also. That creates a kind of ricochet between cultural memories when the things that have disappeared are unique to one culture or the other. Then you have both nostalgia and historical memories of lost traditions.

My first wife was from Osaka and I spent a number of years visiting her family. That was really my introduction to Japan although I had met her in university after studying Asian history for some time. My interest was in Southeast Asia but I ended up with a lifetime involvement with Japan. But I now realize one the most pleasant parts of that was learning to live in an old Osaka neighborhood, not frequented by foreigners, at different times of the year. One of the most nostalgic parts of that was the absence of a bath in my wife’ house. Fifty years ago most houses in Japanese cities or towns did not have showers or baths but only toilets as the neighborhood bath (sento 銭湯)filled that need.

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Fifty years ago they were already starting to disappear and now they are almost gone. Japanese homes have changed over the years and include a full Japanese style bath with all the other amenities. Unlike American homes the bath, in a normal middle class house, is usually next to the laundry room for both logical reasons and connection to hot water heaters. The toilets are separate with their own wash basin but nothing else. Once you have lived in a Japanese home this makes perfect sense and does not confuse two completely different processes that shouldn’t conflict with each other.

introduction to the neighborhood cento was, of course, embarrassing. These were small neighborhood family businesses as so many were needed. As is common knowledge now, Japanese culture puts great emphasis on bathing both for cleanliness and as a ritual. While showers and home baths have replaced the sento the older tradition survives in the onsen tied to mineral springs and scenery. That is very nice but is a completely different experience.

Traveling through Japanese urban areas and small towns you would learn to recognize the neighborhood sentos by the smokestack for wood burning to heat the water. Of course that disappeared first. My wife’s family home was just around the corner from the neighborhood sento. They were almost all the same with a naren hung entrance with shoe boxes in the entrance way and the attendants, usually the owner or wife, at a high counter that allowed them to watch both sides of the dressing rooms. Women on one side and men’s on the other with doors back to the segregated pools. It seemed more often it was the wife who collected the money and kept an eye on the dressing rooms watching for kids running or men who had a few too many on the way home from work.

nce you were comfortable undressing in front of the sento’s family you became part of the neighborhood. The owner’s wife would take your small fee, nod to you, and be careful not to watch to closely while you undressed. During the early afternoon the retired folks would have their leisurely bath followed by wives and mothers getting ready to cook dinner for the kids after school. The evening was the men’s turn with workers first and then salarymen or office workers through the evening as they completed their company social obligations to drink and eat. As I was always there on vacation I would take the late afternoon time with older men. As this was the wife and mother schedule the women’s half was always noisy with ongoing conversations and neighborhood issues to be caught up on with smaller kids playing and shouting. Washing on the side of the pool and then soaking in the very hot water in the late afternoon is so clear a memory, though it is over forty years ago, that it is hard to believe that most of the sentos are gone.

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Educator, CIO, retired entrepreneur, grandfather with occasional fits of humor in the midst of disaster. . .

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