A Kyushu Sento
Shivering in a freezing cold inn, the mention of onsen, or Japanese hot springs, is almost musical.
“Let’s go, we go now!” says Tadashi, the inn owner, energetically pumping his fists in the air. I pry my shivering body away from the electric heater, grab a hand towel and a bar of soap, and hop into the freezing van parked outside. In a matter of seconds, we’re racing through the rural mountain town of Senomoto on Japan’s Kyushu Island, off down the narrow winding road that clutches the mountainside.
The van doors squeak on their hinges as the box on wheels swings around steep cliff corners and weak headlights expose frost-covered patches of grass and dead trees up to only a few feet ahead. The horse sashimi I was persuaded to sample minutes before—it is a must-try, famous Kyushu highland delicacy—threatens to resurface as we swing a sharp left onto a narrow street. We dodge tiny, wooden Japanese houses squatting in the dark and jump across round, stone bridges. When we near a small, steaming river, Tadashi suddenly brings the van to a halt.
Senomoto, being the modest brother of the quaint and traveller-friendly Kurokawa onsen town ten kilometers down the road, has little to offer in the way of luxury bathing. A tiny, concrete structure sits by the river, where steaming hot spring water is flowing. As I near the building, I realize that by “onsen” Tadashi actually meant a self-serve, slowly crumbling sento – a smaller Japanese bath for locals. I quickly remind myself that observing Senomoto’s down-to-earth nature was my initial impetus to travel here. In a society where protocol is strictly adhered to and much happens behind closed, unmarked doors, an experience like this is rare for foreign travelers.
Three women from our hostel have joined us. They scamper, towels in hand, to a decaying wooden box nailed to the wall. A woman named Junko slides a bill into the slot and staunchly refuses my contribution. “Your money is no good here!” she says. I smile and thank her.
In the women’s change room, I take off my clothes and stuff them into a tiny cubby. I have been in Japan long enough now that I am used to being naked with other women at the onsen. Back home, I would have wrapped a towel around my chest underneath my t-shirt before undressing.
But I have grown quite fond of the Japanese tradition of communal bathing and am always in awe of the specific bathing protocol that is religiously followed, the vigilant scrubbing and thorough relaxation that take place.
That said, there are usually spacious changing areas, separate stations to wash, and large luxurious pools that provide enough personal space to avoid awkward encounters. This is hardly the case tonight. The four of us are undressing in a room no larger than 6 by 4 feet; bumping is unavoidable.
I pull open an opaque sliding door and find myself standing in the hot spring. The water is crystal clear and sure to extinguish any uncleanliness at 43 degrees Celsius. A 5 by 3-foot raised ledge for washing gives way to a tiny, 3 feet deep hot spring pool. All this is enclosed in an impossibly small, white-walled room with one closed window on the roof.
Steam fills my lungs and clouds my vision as I lower myself into the hot water, tightly flanked by the other women who begin talking in rapid-fire Japanese. I can’t help but notice their sturdy frames, their short hair slicked back and neatly tucked behind their ears, their smooth, pale skin. Nothing could be further from my dark skin and tumbling locks of frizzy, unruly black curls. I self-consciously fidget, but no one looks at anything but my eyes.
I notice Junko staring at me. Her lips are hesitating.
“Where are you from?” She finally says.
“I live in the USA, but I was born in Canada.” Her face lights up.
“Canada!” The other women begin talking animatedly, motioning to their hair. For a good five minutes, they put their heads together and try to brainstorm the correct English words. Finally, they turn to me and in unison say, “Red-haired Anne!”
I laugh in sincere surprise as I realize that they have all read Anne of Green Gables, which takes place in eastern Canada. The book is apparently a hit in Japan. I tell them how much I loved the story when I was a child, and they smile and laugh to one another. They get started on the next question to ask me, and the next. I am in awe of their persistence to remember the English they learned in middle school, and their determination to include me in the conversation. For foreigners, the onsen can often be a lonely place. But today I feel oddly comfortable.
I learn that Junko, Midori and Kumiko are from other cities on Kyushu Island, they are on a short vacation, and they are over 60 years old – I stare at them in shock, since my best guess of their age was 35 years at the most. Each of them exudes playfulness, joy, and vibrant life. When Midori takes her turn on the washing ledge, her back to us, Junko pretends to kick her in the butt, which sends us all into a fit of hysterics.
As time goes by, our faces turn a bright shade of red and our bodies begin to whine in the heat. But I want so badly to stay and keep talking with the others that I wait until black dots appear in front of my eyes and the wooziness is unbearable before I finally, reluctantly leave. These women have bathed in the hot springs all their lives—I wish I had their stamina.
Ten minutes later, we all emerge from the bathhouse. Senses sedated, we are warm, relaxed and happy. I walk with my new friends, but our interactions aren’t quite the same outside the bathhouse. The steam rising from our ears, mouths and fingertips slowly wafts in front of us, mixing with the mist from the hot river and quickly disappearing into darkness.