Memories Out of Season

August 4, 2015

 

 

 Oddly perhaps, this woodland scene reminded me of living in Tokyo.


 Like most apartments at that time (the 1980s) my "aparto" did not have a shower or bathtub, so each evening I would go to the community bathhouse, called a "sento," where,
like this tanager, I would bathe and emerge clean, if a bit ruffled, before my neighbors.

 


Once I overcame my Western discomfort at being naked in a foreign language--the discomfort lasting maybe all of ten minutes--I was able to relax and settle into the wet, steamy ambiance and naked neighborly camaraderie of the bathhouse.

 

You left your shoes outside, along with dozens of other pairs at the entrance, and entered the bathhouse, males through the door on the right, females through the door on the left. One needn't worry that one's shoes would be stolen. This was Japan. I left my apartment unlocked for the same reason. Why bother?

 

One stepped into a warm, immaculately clean locker room. Beyond the glass doors was the bathing area, rows of faucets along the walls where one washed, shampooed, and rinsed thoroughly before relaxing in one of several large baths. The baths were set at different temperatures, the mildest being slightly below scalding.

 


Here each night I observed Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man: ancient, withered little o-jisans (“O-honorable grandfathers”), the middle-aged husbands and the young men and the teenage boys just coming into their hair, down to the youngest boys and infants, who the fathers would sometimes bring with them, giving their wives a break.

 

Here, too, one found the happy tipsy giggly little Salarymen (office workers) stumbling back to their neighborhoods after an evening of eating, drinking and making merry with their male colleagues. Felicitously intoxicated, they’d shed their dark blue suits and careen around the slippery area, catching up with their neighbors on the day's news or sports or local gossip as they soaped and soaked together.

 

Some were eager to practice their night school English on me--"Ah, goot evenink, Mr. A'ran. How-are-you? I-am-fine. Shank you"--which frequently was the extent of our conversations. Still, more of a conversation than I could manage in their language. All were courteous and friendly, and, though a gaijin (foreigner,) I always felt welcomed and accepted as part of the neighborhood.

 

In time, this custom of bathing with one's neighbors struck me as eminently civilized and sensible, and years later I would warmly recall these experiences in Tales of Tokyo, and build the sensual ambiance and camaraderie of the Japanese bathhouse into the community life of my utopian novel (yet to be published.)