Friday, March 10, 2017

Feb-ulous Kyoto: First Time in a Sento

We were "forewarned" that the house we rented did not come with a bath tub but only a shower room. It's not a problem for us at all as the shower facility turned out to be absolutely spacious and comfortable. But we still managed to get a good soak in the hot tub after a long day’s walk while in Kyoto - in an old-fashioned neighborhood sento (銭湯) just 5 minutes away on foot.

We have been to Japanese onsen numerous times but this is actually our first time visiting a down-to-earth sento, or public bathhouse. The 80-year-old Ume-yu (梅湯) was just a block away at a street corner by the Takase Stream. The décor was rather interesting with the huge neon sign right outside – yeah, like those you would find in a disco or something and it definitely stood out in this traditional neighborhood. After walking through the curtained entrance, paid at the cashier (it costs 430 yen per person per use - standard for all bathhouses in the city) and took off our shoes, we went separate way into our own section divided by gender identified by the color of the curtain.

The rest was pretty much the same as what you would go through in an onsen – you took off your clothes, put them in the locker and went into the bathing area through the sliding door with nothing but a small towel. There are places you need to bring your soap and shampoo but for this one they are  provided if you don't have your own. The bathing area was surprisingly big, with plenty of booths for scrubbing and rinsing, and it came with several different kinds of baths – there were two regular baths of different temperatures, one with infused with herbs (with "flavors" changing daily with description of their medicinal values), a sauna, a cold tub and one called the "electric bath". It’s such a soothing experience just relaxing in the hot tub. The electric bath was an interesting one – the water was not particularly hot, but once you stepped inside, you got this mild electric current running through your body like having a mini shock. I couldn't say I enjoyed it a lot – I jumped right out after 30 seconds - but it's just, well, fun to try.

With a big TV showing news and other programs, and people chatting while soaking in the hot tub, I felt like this is not just a place to bath but almost like a social venue, like a pub or a cafe elsewhere where people gathered as a community.

Most sento only opens at night, but ume-yu also operates in the morning during weekends. We did visit on two separate occasions – one on the first night and one in the morning before we left town. And the clientele was dramatically different – at night it consists of mainly old people who probably live nearby and are regulars, and the time in the early morning it was packed with young dudes (two with full-body tattoos which combined with the police patrol car parked right outside the building added to the rather suspense scene like those classic gangster movies)

We can now cross one more item out for our list of "interesting things we tried in Japan". For me it’s an interesting experience and I can definitely see the appeal of sento as part of the Japanese nostalgic sub-culture.

Ume-yu
Address: 175 Iwataki-cho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Web: https://twitter.com/umeyu_rakuen
Owner Sanjiro Minato's Instagram Page: https://www.instagram.com/sanjiro_minato/

(Feb-ulous Kyoto Part 4 - check out the whole series here!)


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