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  • Belle Brett

The Public Baths in Japan

During my stay in Japan several decades ago when I was a bar hostess, I lived in a room over a club. The place had only a toilet and sink downstairs. To bathe properly, I had to use the public bath (sento) nearby. This was a new experience for me, and I was very self-conscious at first, like my protagonist, Dorothy. This communal bathing eventually became an enjoyable ritual that allowed me to de-stress from my work as well as keep clean.

"Ofuro," collage by Belle Brett (2019)

“The bath building, which was around the corner from Suki’s, looked from the front like any other building on the street. If any signs existed, they were too small to be noticeable. Maybe you just had to know.

After paying a small fee in the lobby, we entered the locker room to undress. I didn’t normally mind getting naked among other women, but I hesitated in this unfamiliar environment. Suki wasn’t at all self-conscious. As she stripped, I noticed a yellowing bruise on her upper arm. I peeled off my clothes, placed them in a basket, and locked up my shoes as instructed.

The actual bath room was steamy with many faucets low to the ground. Several older Japanese women with drooping breasts and sagging skin were seated on tiny stools, soaping themselves up and rinsing. We sat down on stools, too, and I copied their actions, trying to act as though I’d been doing it all my life.

After we hosed ourselves down, Suki led me to the first of three pool-like tiled tubs. She told me that each one was progressively hotter. I eased halfway into the scalding water, wondering how anyone could tolerate the higher temperatures in the other tubs.” (From Gina in the Floating World)

In addition to being a writer, I am also an artist. The publication of my novel, Gina in the Floating World, inspired me to create art, intended not as literal illustrations, but rather as reflections of different scenarios in the novel or aspects of Japanese culture that I find interesting. My predominant medium is collage.

In the image that accompanies this post, I recreate my impression of the public bath, with the women washing and rinsing themselves and an older woman starting to immerse herself in one of the hot tubs (ofuro). Prior to entering the tub, one must rinse oneself. The tubs are for soaking, not cleaning. According to ofuro etiquette, one rinses, soaks, washes and rinses outside the tub (including hair), and return to the tub if desired. Prior to the 1970s, public baths were very common, but as indoor plumbing became more prevalent, the number of public baths declined. Nevertheless, they remain popular.

(Currently, through March 15, 2019, I am exhibiting seven collages from my Japan-inspired series at my gym, Healthworks, in Cambridge, open only to members. In July 2019, I will have a larger exhibit at the Great Bay Gallery in Somers Point, NJ, where I will also do a reading.)

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