Once a year, Katsumi’s dad had two months’ paid vacation from work and every year, as soon as school let out for the summer, just like clockwork, the Kuroki family would pack their suitcases and head to Japan to visit relatives. For the first half of vacation, they would visit her father, Katsuo’s family, who lived in Hirosaki, a relatively small village in Northern Honshu. The second half of their vacation was usually spent with her mother, Hanako’s family, in Tokyo.
The rest of the year, Cat, as she was generally known, usually wrote back and forth with her cousin, Nanako, who, at fourteen, was only six months older than Cat. Both sets of parents seemed to think this was a good arrangement, since it helped to strengthen both girls’ language skills. Cat hated to admit it, but Nanako’s English was much better than her Japanese.
This year, however, Nanako had promised a particular treat. Sometime during the last week of the family visit, Nanako would take Cat to visit a real Japanese public bath or sento. Cat could hardly contain her excitement. She’d heard a lot about Japanese bathing traditions from her father’s parents. This time, she was actually going to go see and use a sento herself.
Now, at last, the promised day had arrived. Cat’s parents gave her two thousand yen, which in American terms was roughly twenty bucks and Nanako’s parents sent her sixteen-year-old sister, Mai along to keep the two of them out of mischief. Secretly, Nanako and Cat were a trifle annoyed by this, since, once put in charge, Mai tended to be more than a little bossy. It was Mai, for example, who insisted that Cat bring her own shampoo, conditioner, soap and towels.
“You can buy some at the sento, if you don’t have any,” Mai said fussily, as Cat went to ask her mother for a canvas tote bag, “but they cost a hundred yen a piece, so it’s easier to just bring your own, if you have them.”
All the way to the train station and all during the train ride, Mai lectured Cat on sento etiquette. Cat tried several times to tell the older girl that her parents had already told her most of this on the plane, but Mai continued to talk busily and the more the she talked, the more Cat began to worry that she was going to make a mistake.
“Relax,” Nanako smiled, taking her cousin’s hand, “Mai just likes to be in charge.”
“But what if I make a mistake, Nan-chan,” Cat fretted.
“Don’t worry,” Nanako replied, squeezing Cat’s hand. “If you’re not sure about anything, just ask me. I won’t let you embarrass yourself.”
The three girls got off at the train station and walked a little ways until they came to a doorway that had a long bar with some dark blue flags across the top of it. The middle of these had a symbol that looked to Cat like a bowl of hot soup.
“This is Shimizu-yu,” said Nanako with a smile. “They just finished renovations this spring. Baba said they put in a Jacuzzi bath and I’ve never been in one of those.”
Cat relaxed a little when Nanako said this. Back home, Cat had a friend whose parents owned a Jacuzzi and she’d been in it several times.
“Come on!” Mai commanded, sticking her head back out of the doorway to gaze irritably at the other two girls.
Nanako and Cat quickly scurried in past the door flags and took their shoes off. Cat hastily shoved her shoes into the locker next to Nanako’s, putting a single hundred yen coin into the slot so that the locker key turned and came free.
[Welcome to Shimizu-yu,] smiled the man at the counter in Japanese. [Four hundred yen, please,] then added, [Do you need any shampoo or soap today?] when the girls had each paid.
[No, thank you,] Mai replied politely, steering her two charges toward a door to the right of the counter.
Past the door, Cat had to fight to keep from staring. Most of the women here were walking around naked as if they’d done so their whole lives. The closest Cat had ever come to this was the locker rooms at the pool where, if you still wanted privacy, you could always go into a bathroom stall. Here, even the toilet was out in the open, even if it was placed discreetly in a corner.
“Aren’t there any dressing rooms?” Cat asked, taken aback.
“This is the dressing room,” Nanako laughed.
Cat smiled back weakly, following her cousin to another set of lockers. Cat noticed that each of these lockers had a blue plastic coil attached to its key. Looking around, she noticed that several women here had blue coils with keys on them around their wrists or ankles. She even noticed Mai, who had undressed remarkably fast, slipping a blue plastic coil over the red-painted toenails of her left foot.
“Kat-chan,” said Nanako, pulling her cousin back to reality again, “aren’t you going to bathe?”
Cat blinked, then hurriedly began to undress, bundling her street clothes into a locker and paying another hundred yen to keep the key. After a moment’s thought, Cat put the blue coil on her wrist then slung her canvas bagful of toiletries over a shoulder and followed Nanako through a sliding door in the middle of the frosted glass partition.
She swallowed. Here, everyone was naked. The only nod to clothing Cat saw was the occasional use of a small towel to cover various private parts and that was mainly just the younger people. The older ones didn’t cover anything. Nanako led Cat to a line of low faucets and easily found a pair of vacant ones, each with its white plastic stool and bucket set carefully beneath the spout. Imitating Nanako, Cat dragged out the two plastic items and seated herself on the stool, trying to ignore the fact that she was surrounded by naked women of all ages. After a while, as she washed herself, Cat found that she was paying less attention to them.
“Don’t forget to rinse,” Mai said in officious tones. “You’re not supposed to get any soap or shampoo in the bath water.”
Nanako pulled the lid of one eye down and stuck an irreverent tongue out at her sister, but the older girl either didn’t notice or pretended not to. Still, she and Cat made sure they were completely soap and shampoo free before they stood up again.
Once they were completely clean, Cat wanted to get into the really hot bath. Laughing, Nanako said they could work up to it and tugged her down to the warm bath. Cat was surprised at how deep it was and the water was just this side of hot. Just when Cat and Nanako were ready to try the Jacuzzi, however, Mai came over and told them it was time to get dressed and go home.
Once the two girls had dressed, though, Nanako led Cat to another part of the dressing room where a pair of vending machines stood. She put four hundred yen into one of them and withdrew two drinks.
“My treat,” she said, handing one to Cat.
Cat sipped at the drink, which tasted surprisingly like milk, all the way back to her uncle’s house.
“Did you have fun, Kat-chan?” her mother asked as the girls walked in and knelt on the floor.
Cat’s only answer was a relaxed smile.
Okay, in case you were wondering, the word I picked, with some help from my daughter, was “bath.” I love learning about other cultures than my own and I know more or less about Japanese public baths from watching Ranma 1/2. So, when my daughter picked “bath” as the word I was going to write a story about, I immediately thought about writing about a visit to a Japanese public bath. It was fun learning about them and even more fun learning that, since more Japanese homes have built in bathrooms and, as a result, public baths are declining, lots of the older generation can be heard to say that the youth of today don’t understand the tradition of public baths and don’t get socialized enough. Initially, I was going to have an old lady named Mrs. Fujita who was going to be their voice, but there wasn’t enough space. By the way, just for reference, anything in brackets is supposed to be in Japanese instead of English.