50 Stories, Week 30: A Sentō in Kyoto

Three years ago, my man and I went to Japan for ten days to visit Tokyo and Kyoto with a total understanding of one Japanese word between us: arigato. We’d heard that visiting Japan in the fall is great, after the rainy season there would be lots of foliage and moderate temperatures. While it was raining when we arrived, we were not deterred. The delirium of jetlag and excitement of a new place kept us going. As the trip went on, though, we were forced to accept the rain which lasted the duration of our trip. 

Every. Single. Day. 

After seeing most of Tokyo, we took the bullet train to Kyoto and checked into our ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. Think simple, empty rooms with a natural, light color palette. There was a small table and two floor chairs, along with a tatami mat and rice paper doors. Behind the sliding bamboo closet doors held our futons that we would roll out each night at bedtime. It was quiet, peaceful and cozy – except for the whole sleeping on the floor bit. I hadn’t slept on a futon in many years, and truth be told, I didn’t miss it. Upon checking in, the man at the front desk handed us our samue-style roomwear and geta (wooden sandals.) In limited English, he enthusiastically recommended we take advantage of the public baths across the street. In Japan, a sentō has been a communal ritual for many years because most homes didn’t historically have baths. I’m not generally a fan of hot, steamy spa environments. I overheat quickly, and I can be paranoid about spending too much time inside and passing out. I usually time myself in a steam, sauna or bath, and get out before I start to feel woozy. Just long enough to have a positive effect on my body and not an anxious effect on my mind. 

Nearly a week of rain dampening us to our bones, though, and in the spirit of trusting travel recommendations, we were ready for a nice, warm soak. 

When we arrived at Gokoyu Onsen, we handed our passes to the attendant who said something in Japanese. I said we were sorry but didn’t understand, to which he repeated the same phrase so we smiled, bowed, and went our separate, gendered ways toward the baths. 

The women’s changing room was simple, clean, and well kept. After I put my clothes in the locker, I took my naked body into the bathing area. There were three baths available and all had Japanese writing on the sides – I imagined they said something like “Don’t drown!,” “No drinking and bathing!,” or “No sex in the tub!” There was only one other woman in a corner bath and she looked to be about 90 years old.  So I picked an empty tub and got in. The temperature was perfect. Not oppressively hot. I rested my head against the edge of the tub and then I felt a quick, strange, painful sensation throughout my chest. At first, I thought I pinched a nerve in my neck or back. I readjusted my position and as I rested my arm on the side of the tub, I felt the same powerful jolt. Am I having a heart attack? I was evaluating my body from head to toe when it happened again and this time my brain clearly identified it as an electric shock. Something was wrong with their heating system and I was about to be electrocuted, so I jumped out of the tub. I thought I heard the old woman across from me chuckle quietly but I must be imagining things. My adrenaline was pumping and I spiraled into thoughts of emergency medical assistance in a country where I didn’t know the language. I tried to dry and dress as calmly as possible, checking in with my body to see if I felt the pain in my chest again but all I could feel was the adrenaline of a churning, nervous stomach and spinning mind. I crossed the street to the ryokan and laid down on the matted floor, waiting patiently for Jason to return. I distracted myself by watching a video on my phone, but my mind was preparing to tell Jason that something bizarre was going on with my body. When he finally walked in the door, the first thing he said was “That was the strangest bath experience. I think something shocked me!” 

Turns out, denkiburo, or electricity baths, have been a thing in Japan for almost one hundred years. Some people find the sensation of piri piri (tingling, stinging) to be relaxing. Jason and I might have had the opportunity to discover if we found it relaxing had we any idea of what we were putting our bodies into. Apparently, no one has died from an electricity bath but it can mess with a pacemaker. When we next saw the man from our ryokan’s front desk, we asked him why he didn’t mention the electric baths. He looked at us like we were aliens as in, “How do you not already know about this?”

Often the best travel experiences can come from listening to recommendations without overanalyzing or over researching, and going with the flow. This way of travel usually brings home the best anecdotes and stories, too. 

Though next time, I’ll download a Japanese translation app – just to be on the safe side.

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