David Notkin's and Cathy Tuttle's "Japan Stories" (1990-91)

27 June 1990, Japan Stories #3: Sentos, Yokohama & the Matsumotos

Here's one for all you e-mail fanatics out there to think about. One of the students taking my class is from Toshiba. I asked him for his e-mail address, and he answered: "Sorry, I'm only an implementor, so I don't have an e-mail address yet."

Last Friday night, Cathy and I visited the local "sento", or public bath, for the first time. We had been to an "onsen", or hotsprings, last year, so we knew a few of the ropes, but it's still a little overwhelming at first. The place is only about a five minute walk from our apartment. "Sento" throughout Japan are designated primarily by a 23-meter high gray chimney with a black marking at the top. Women go to the left at the entrance (in this one, at least) and men to the right. Take off your shoes at the entrance, of course. Just inside the entrances there is a counter for the person in charge. When you enter, you pay him or her 310 yen (about $2) and grab a locker. Although the women and men are entirely separated, the person in charge sits at a counter that oversees both locker rooms and both baths. It's a sort of interesting way to see how the Japanese think about nudity. (My understanding is that it was only after the Western influence came to Japan that separate bathing became the rule.)

After you strip down, you go through some sliding doors into a room that contains a bunch of buckets, little plastic stools, and pairs of hot and cold water faucets (placed very near the ground). You then sit on a stool (or just squat down, which is probably easier if you've grown up using squat toilets, which are still quite common around here) and wash and wash and wash until there is no dirt left even near you. To help wash and to keep a modicum of modesty (if you want), you use a little towel about 2-3 times the size of a normal washcloth. I took about 10 minutes to wash, but Cathy said she took more. Only then do you get into the bath. There were three tubs, one still one and two swirling or bubbling ones. They were probably different temperatures, by 2 or 3 degrees centigrade, but it didn't matter, since they were all *extremely* hot. But you get a little used to it. There is a faucet with some cold water right there, so you can cool yourself of a little if needed. One older lady kept coming over to Cathy to make sure she used the cold water, since it was obviously too hot for a foreigner. In any case, after all this, you go out, dry off (if that's possibly in this humidity), and head home. It really does feel great. More on the social structure and the decor at the bath some other time.

On Saturday we went to Yokohama to visit Matsumoto-san's house. Yokohoma is a small city about 30 mintues from (our part of) Tokyo. Only about 3 million people. In any case, Matsumoto-san met us at the station and took us to her place, about 15 minutes by train and another 5-10 on foot. She's been telling us how tiny her house was, but it wasn't. The garden is really incredible. They have about 400 bonsai trees in the back yard, along with lots of other plants and trees (including a persimmon tree). There's a little pond with carp. It's just like you imagine a Japanese yard to be. Before we went inside, Matusmoto-san and her father took us on a nice 10-15 minute walk to their vegetable garden. (Having a second piece of land like this is unusual, I think. The family has lived in Yokohama for 40-50 years, which accounts for some of it, I suspect). Lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, asparagus, lettuce, daikon (white radishes nearly two feet long), and lots more.

Back at the house we were served lunch. The four of us (Cathy, Kelleen, Kevin, and I) sat down in their dining room, on the "tatami" mats at low tables, as is usual. Her father sat with us, pouring beer (which tasted great, since it was so damned hot) while Matsumoto-san and her mother served. It was really strange, but he sat and watched us eat. And eat. And eat. Finally we asked if they were going to eat something, and they did in fact start. We're still not sure if they were waiting for us to ask, or if they were just ready to eat then. As with all Japanese meals, the food was laid out meticulously, with each item in a separate and special plate or bowl. The few courses I remember include a cold egg custard (with shrimp, tofu, etc. inside), cold tofu with a ginger/soy sauce, tempura (made from vegetables we had picked at the garden), and the most incredible plate of sashimi (sliced, raw fish, like sushi, but without the rice). And there was *lots* more (including rice, which comes alone at the end, like salad in Europe).

Afterwards, all we wanted to do was sleep (the heat, the beer, the food, and having no idea what to do when made us exhausted). But, after about a half hour, we left to go meet Matsumoto-san's tea ceremony teacher. It was about 30 minutes away by train and then bus. The house/school was a small, beautiful place in a semi-residential neighborhood. In addition to Matsumoto-san and the sensei (the word for teacher, professor, etc.), there were two other students, both women. Apparently there are 12 students all told, of whom only one is a man. We sat on the tatami (straw mats) in the visitors' spots. They then went through the ceremony four times, making tea for each of the four of us. It takes perhaps 10-15 minutes to go through each ceremony, including time for washing the tea bowl, making the tea, and drinking it. Each part has an incredible ritual, which of course we couldn't follow with any real appreciation. Then, however, the sensei had each of us go through the ceremony once. The details are overwhelming. Picking up the ladle for the hot water, for instance, is a task that must take a year to learn to do even passably well. Stirring the tea with the whisk is equally hard. And you do almost everything with just one hand, with the other sitting on your thigh in a precise position (that seems to vary at different times). Plus you do all this while kneeling. The sensei was patient and placid (although things we did made even her giggle on occasion).

We went back to Yokohama on Sunday night to visit some friends of Cathy's anthropology adviser. It was also a nice evening, but more like we're used to in the US. One thing that was funny was that they made a big thing of serving us American beer (Michelob) first and then switching to Japanese beer (which we prefer, of course). Dinner was do-it-yourself sushi, where you get a bowl of rice and a plate of seafood and vegetables. You then put some rice on some seaweed, pick something from the plate, and roll your own. A great idea, for sure.

There's lots more, but that's all for now.