Please scroll down for the English translation!
今次去京都旅行，由於住喺一間浴缸好細嘅日本連鎖式酒店，於是試試上網揾揾酒店附近有冇錢湯。一揾就喺附近揾到兩間，步程都唔超過 5 分鐘，第一晚揀咗一間叫「梅湯」試試。
聽落去，好似好多規矩咁。有人會講都係冲個涼啫，點解要攪咁多嘢？！咁就不能不提錢湯嘅起源同日本嘅泡浸文化。據聞澡堂文化早在 6 世紀時跟佛教傳入日本有關，澡堂主要讓佛寺嘅僧侶使用，喺潔淨身體嘅同時洗滌心靈，亦有讓窮苦大眾使用，為佢哋帶來好運。之後慢慢澡堂開始收費讓普羅大眾使用，演變成今日嘅錢湯。喺全盛時期，全日本有大約 2 萬間錢湯，但隨著戰後日本經濟發達，好多日本人屋企都有自己嘅浴室，而家錢湯數量下降至 4 千間左右。
「梅湯」係一間百年老店，但老闆卻是一個年輕人，好奇怪，印象中錢湯嘅掌櫃多數都係上咗年紀嘅老人家。原來呢位 90 後老闆同好多日本嘅年輕一代一樣，細蚊仔時都未去過錢湯，直到20歲先第一次去，仲一去就愛上錢湯文化，好鐘意見到街坊用京都腔熱情傾計，覺得赤裸相見，拉近人與人之間嘅關係。據稱，佢用咗8年時間，走訪全日本 700 多間錢湯，發現錢湯嘅經營者大多數都係上咗年紀嘅老年人，見到唔少錢湯都面臨倒閉結業嘅危機，激發起佢想保留及推廣澡堂文化嘅理想。
當晚大約9點鐘嚟到梅湯，女湯內使用人數唔算太多，得 6、7 個人左右，多數都係 50 歲以上，但都有兩、三個年輕人。我一坐低打算冲涼，就聽到其中一個上咗年紀嘅老人家用日文同我講嘢，慢慢我就了解到，我用錯咗佢個啲工具。原來喺浸錢湯時，冲涼時用嘅櫈仔同面盆仔，係要一進入女湯時喺門口自己拎，同去日式温泉旅館浸溫泉唔同㗎。
有人好似我一樣，鐘意獨個兒享受，但有人鐘意相約知己一齊前往泡湯。我就聽到剛才指導我嘅婆婆同另一位啱啱嚟到嘅「街坊」傾計，我估佢哋兩個都係梅湯嘅熟客。記得睇過一段 YouTube 短片，訪問咗一個錢湯老闆，佢問點解日本人咁鐘意去澡堂浸湯，大家都赤祼祼，仲會同人交流唔會覺得尷尬咩？佢話，無論你係富貴或貧窮，做咩職業，喺沖涼泡湯時，都係赤裸裸嘅，同你出身時一模一樣，呢種赤身嘅交流，好容易使人忘記高低貴賤，大家都係平等嘅，交流更為真誠！
“Sento, the Japanese Public Bath House”
by Evette Kwok
People in Hong Kong tend to have some knowledge of the culture of the sento or Japanese bath house, and the Japanese films, TV cartoons and manga they enjoy occasionally feature this element, one that is particular to the Japanese way of life. I remember watching an episode of a cartoon about Chibi Maruko-cha and how she went off with her whole family to a sento for a bath, each person carrying a basket loaded with all the things they needed!
On my most recent trip to Kyoto, I stayed in one of a chain of hotels which had very narrow bath-tubs, so I went on-line to see whether there was a bath house in the nearby area. A quick search turned up two. On my first night, I chose one called Plum Bath House which was less than five minutes’ walk away and gave it a go.
When you go to a Japanese bath house, a special kind of etiquette is involved. Out of respect for both yourself and the local culture, you have to do your homework first. As soon as you enter, you must take off your shoes and place them in a special shoe-cupboard, and then you must make your way to the bandai (the counter where you pay). After that, you can take your bath, men in the men’s bath house and women in the women’s. After taking off all your clothes off (including your underwear) in the change rooms, you can enter the bathing area. This is divided into two sections, the cleansing section and the bathing section. First of all you have to go to the cleansing section and give yourself a thorough washing; only then can you go into the baths. It is considered extremely bad manners if you go straight to the bathing section without washing. Another thing: you shouldn’t let your towel or the hair on your head make contact with the water.
That sounds like a lot of rules and regulations. You might say to yourself, But it’s just a wash! Why all this fuss and bother? A word or two about the origins of the Japanese sento and the hygiene culture of the Japanese might be in order here. The culture of bath houses dates back as early as the sixth century, they say, and is linked to the introduction of Buddhism. In those days, bath houses were primarily for the use of the monks in Buddhist monasteries so that they could purify their souls while they were making themselves clean. They were also open to the masses of people who lived in poverty and misery, to bring them good fortune. Eventually, bath houses began charging a fee for use by ordinary people, thereby evolving into the sento of today. In their heyday, there were roughly 20,000 of them across the whole of Japan, but with the development of Japan’s economy after World War Two, when many Japanese people installed bathrooms in their homes, the number of sento dropped to around 4000.
Plum Bath House was an old establishment that had been in operation for a hundred years, but the man in charge was a young fellow — for some odd reason, my impression was that you had to be old to run a bath house. Like many people of the 1990s generation in Japan, this bath-house owner never visited a bath house as a child. He was twenty before he made his first trip, but he immediately fell in love with sento culture, and was delighted to see the locals there chatting away in Kyoto dialect — he felt it brought people closer together, seeing each another undressed like that. Apparently, over an eight-year period, he went to more than seven hundred sento across the country. Seeing that that most of them were run by old people, and that quite a few faced the threat of having to close down, he was inspired with the ideal of preserving and promoting bath house culture.
In terms of how it is run, one important way in which Plum Bath House differs from other establishments is that it is not open for business on Thursdays. On that day, it is hired out as a venue for concerts or other cultural activities, and in this way young people who come along to such events get the opportunity to learn something about bath house culture at the same time.
When I arrived at Plum Bath House at around 9 p.m., there weren’t many people in the women’s bath — only six or seven — and most of them were over fifty years of age, with the exception of two or three younger women. When I sat down intending to wash myself, one of the older women said something to me in Japanese and eventually I realized that I was using something that belonged to her. As it turns out, when you go for a bath in a bath house, you have to bring the stool and the basin you need along with you when you come into the bathing area. This is different from what you do when you take a bath at a Japanese mineral spring hotel.
In Japan, the pools you soak in are known as furo. Plum Bath House was very well appointed: there was a deep-water furo, a shallow furo, a medicinal herb furo, an electric furo, a cold-water furo and a Finnish sauna. As someone keen to try new things, I naturally tried each and every one of them. I won’t forget the electric furo in a hurry: in it, weak electric currents are conducted to your body through the water, giving you the feeling of an electric shock and helping you to relax, both physically and mentally. After I got into the electric furo, I gradually began to sense that I was being gently pricked all over by countless small, fine needles, which left me with a numb sensation. I would imagine that this unusual sensation is not to everyone’s taste, necessarily . . .
My favourite was the simplest bath of all, the shallow furo. As I sat there soaking by myself with the watering covering me, it submerged all my usual annoyances at the same time and nothing seemed to matter as much as it usually did — all that bodily weariness dissolved into the water: now that’s what I call relaxing!
Like me, some people enjoy taking a bath on their own, but there are those who prefer to go to a bath house with close friends. I heard the woman who had given me instructions earlier chatting to another woman — a neighbour — who had just arrived, and I got the feeling that the two of them were regular customers at Plum Bath House. I remember seeing a YouTube video clip in which a bath house owner was interviewed, and he was asked why Japanese people are so fond of taking a bath in a public bath house where everyone is completely naked. Wouldn’t they feel embarrassed interacting like that with others? In reply, he said that no matter whether you were rich or poor, and regardless of what your profession was, when you took a bath at the bath house you took your clothes off like everyone else, as naked as the day you were born. In this kind of naked interaction, it is easy to forget about superior and inferior, rich and poor: since everyone is equal, communication becomes more honest!
I like taking a bath this way in Winter because afterwards it leaves me feeling warmed up all over. At the counter, I bought a pretty little bottle of milk and drank it down in one go, bringing to a perfect full-stop my “first bath in a sento”.
Translated by Simon Patton