Going Deep at the Sento: Travel Wisdom of a Twelve-Year-Old

When my younger son, Nathaniel, was seven years old he announced that he was starting a travel fund. All future allowance, birthday gifts, Chanukah presents, and random grandparental disbursements would be saved for his “dream trip”. And Disneyworld was emphatically not on the itinerary. Nathaniel was the only early reader I knew whose bookshelves included Rough Guide to India and First Time Africa.

I liked to think it was hereditary. Two decades as a single academic had meant a considerable amount of professional travel and some very well-used sabbaticals. So, extended stays in China in the 1980s, Berlin and the Eastern Bloc before the Wall came down, and two treks in Nepal. I may have come late to fatherhood, and found the learning curve steep, but I was confident in my role as travel mentor.

This past summer, when Nathaniel turned twelve, his dream trip became a reality. Three and a half weeks in Japan with an itinerary we developed together, including Tokyo, the Fuji Lakes region, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. Wherever possible we would stay in ryokans, traditional-style guest houses, eat local specialties at non-tourist restaurants, and do our best to immerse ourselves to the full in Japanese culture and customs. Nathaniel was more than game. We hiked Fuji at dawn, ate octopus udon for an early breakfast at the Tokyo fish market, watched three hours plus of Kabuki theatre, cycled from temple to temple through the streets of Kyoto, and saw the visiting Yokahama Baystars defeat the hometown Hiroshima Carp at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. He embraced it all. But the thing he liked best was the sento, or public bath house.

He first discovered this ancient practice at the hotel Tominoko, on Lake Kawaguchi at the foot of Mount Fuji. The hotel had an onsen, gendered communal baths, for its guests. Our fellow travelers, Chinese tour groups primarily, evinced no interest, so, after showing Nathaniel the ritual of washing thoroughly before entering the bath, we relaxed alone in the steaming water. Even better than the onsen, the hotel also had a rotemburo, an outdoor bath built of rocks. After a long day spent hiking on Fuji, we eased our aching muscles while gazing at the mountain’s summit floating above the clouds.

Nathaniel was entranced and I felt I’d scored a notable triumph: an immersive (literally), authentic, and traditional travel experience. Done. But Nathaniel wasn’t done. He wasn’t interested in merely sampling the experience and crossing it off the list. He was determined to make the onsen a regular feature of our time in Japan. And my son’s determination is a force to be reckoned with. (That travel fund of his? It ended up covering a significant portion of our trip’s costs.)

The Matsubaya Ryokan, where we stayed in Kyoto, is authentic, reasonably-priced and centrally-located, but does not have an onsen, or even an ofuro, or hot tub. Nathaniel remembered what I had told him about the disappearing institution of the sento, the public bath houses. Maybe there was one close by? Surely the ryokan staff would know? That would really be embracing local culture, wouldn’t it? I have never been proof against my son’s tenacity and I duly marshalled my recently acquired rudiments of Japanese and inquired.

We were in luck. Our hosts told us about Hakusan-yu Rokujo, a sento five minutes’ walk away. It was, they assured me, an honourable institution. (This last detail led to considerable speculation on my part which I kept to myself. There are some local customs even the most precocious twelve-old traveler doesn’t need to learn about.) The sento was in a semi-residential neighbourhood, a nondescript two-story cement building beside a modest restaurant. The men’s bath was on the main floor, the women’s on the second. The cost was all of $4.00 per person.

We arrived in the late afternoon, hot and sweaty after a day of bicycling around Kyoto. The locker rooms were crowded, with shower stations around the perimeter of the baths. We were the only westerners there and we quickly became aware of discreet surveillance: we made sure to soap and rinse ourselves scrupulously. Three different hot baths awaited us. The first was partitioned into a circular pool of very hot, still water; a whirlpool-like bath with circulating jets; and an area in which a gentle electric current ran through the water. From there, we progressed to a moderate-sized, slightly cooler bath and then a two-person pool of warm, scented (chamomile and lavender), coloured water. The sento also has a cold pool with water tumbling from a spigot in the wall; it enabled us to cool down so we could return to the hot baths. Walking back to the ryokan, we were so relaxed we were weak in the knees.

Now we were both hooked and we visited the sento every day we were in Kyoto. We quickly began to recognize the regulars, including the man who rented us bicycles, and to grasp the finer points of sento etiquette: how much eye contact to make, the acceptable scope of conversational overtures. The regular patron with the full arm and leg tattoos, we noted, was given a very wide berth. Probably a yakuza or gangster. We followed suit and maintained a respectful distance.

Once we left Kyoto, there was no question that we would seek out sentos or onsens wherever we could. The upscale Hotel Nikko in Himeji, home to Japan’s most famous castle, was by far the most luxurious, with one large indoor pool and a rotemburo on a balcony. We visited on a cool rainy day and enjoyed the contrast between the cool rain and the hot water. In Matsuyama, on the rural island of Shikoku, we visited the historic Dogo Onsen. The building is a fascinating traditional wooden structure, the bath itself surrounded by impressive mosaics, and the hot spring water is considered to be curative. But it has only one bath and felt more like a tourist venue than a truly communal site.

By the end of our trip, we considered ourselves, if not sento experts, then certainly initiates. And I realized how important this repeated ritual had become to the texture and spirit of our trip. Nathaniel’s insistence that time spent at the onsen or sento was not wasted, that it didn’t matter if we’d “already done that,” reminded me of a truth of traveling that I had forgotten: that the most memorable experiences often come not from novelty, not from the ceaseless pursuit of the next item on the itinerary, the next essential Instagram-op, but from patient, sustained, respectful attention. You could also say that going deep at the sento brought me face-to-face, yet again, with that one incontrovertible truth of fatherhood: kids always teach you more than you teach them. Even on the road.

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