December 29, 2011

The public bath


The public bath described here is actually a steam bath (蒸し風呂). During Japan's medieval period, the residents of the "low city" couldn't afford the cost of heating enough water to fill an actual sentô (銭湯). It's cheaper to bake rocks to create steam and dole out the hot water parsimoniously.

The sentô as a public institution reached its high water mark during mid-20th century, before people became wealthy enough to afford their own baths. A sentô's best advertising was the tall chimney rising above it, as they would burn anything they could lay their hands on to heat those massive amounts of water.

Those chimneys are giving way as well to gas-fired boilers.

"Mixed bathing" (混浴) vanished for good from the public sentô during the post-WWII Occupation. During the mid-19th century, though, U.S. Consul Townsend Harris observed that

Everyone bathes every day . . . both sexes, old and young, enter the same [public bath] and there perform their ablutions in a state of perfect nudity. I cannot account for so indelicate a proceeding on the part of a people so generally correct.

Shogun (which, like Mr. Baseball, is a more accurate depiction of Japan than is given credit for, though often despite itself) had much fun with the fact that Europeans of the period were a dirty, smelly lot. This is one facet of Japanese culture whose commonsensical superiority remains unquestioned.

Toilets of the era were more advanced in Japan, and still are. The year-end cleaning rituals continue to this day.

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