This will be a photo-free post, for obvious reasons! The Tea Ceremony House we are renting happens to be located only one block away from Kyoto’s oldest public bath house–Funaoka Onsen.  Technically, Funaoka technically is a sento (or bath house), whereas an onsen is a natural hot spring, but for some reason that distinction has been overlooked at Funaoka.

Funaoka has opened its doors to bath-seeking patrons for over 100-years with hours from 3pm – 1am.  Our third evening here, we decided to check it out.  The entrance fee was Yen 410 (or about $4) for adults and Zara was half-price.  We rented towels as our house rental does not come equipped with them (hence, our eagerness to check out the sento), although I was bemused to be handed towels that would have been too small to swaddle a newborn.  And thus armed, Zara and I bravely entered the female side of the gender-segregated sento, while Jonathan happily got off scot-free on the challenges of introducing an inquisitive (and loud) 6-year old to bath house etiquette.

In retrospect, I’d highly recommend familiarizing yourself with such etiquette before entering a sento.

I did know that we were supposed to thoroughly wash before entering the baths.  Seems simple enough.  So after I convinced Zara that we really did have to strip down to our birthday suits (she had been thinking of this as more of a swimming than a bathing experience), we timidly passed through the locker room glass doors and stepped into the first thing we saw– a shower cascading into a hot thigh-high bath.  Only once we were under the shower-head did it dawn on me that this was one of the baths and we were committing our first faux paux.

Then I noted two women seated on preschool sized plastic chairs in front of various faucets vigorously scrubbing their skin with brushes.  Ah-ha. This was how it was done.  We quickly scooted over to a a couple of free seats and did the obligatory wash, sans brushes.  Once clean, we tested the waters.

The pools were pleasingly hot, although perhaps too much for Zara to handle for more than a few minutes, so we rotated around the various pools until we came to one with warning sign: Electric Bath: caution for those with heart problems. No joke. This was the infamous, Denkiburo, where a mild current circulates through the water. The theory is that this forces the muscles to contract and thus, relax.  Hmm.  Fearful that my family’s heart problem history could cause my heart muscle to permanently relax, we elected to dip only our hands into it so as to experience the noticeable tingle.  (Jonathan, not surprisingly for those who know him, went  for the full experience.)  I also found it mildly disturbing that the Denkiburo’s waters flowed freely into the other baths, as it was not a self-contained unit, but I can’t begin to even comprehend the science of why the Denkiburo is safe in the first place.

We next moved onto the hot/cold combination pool and just as I was attempting to submerge myself into the icy waters of the cold pool, a Japanese women forcefully said something to me a couple of times and motioned to my hair.  Oops. Faux paus #2.  It seems that putting one’s long hair up is also a requirement.  I used the locker key rubber band to tie mine up and then tried to fashion Zara’s into a bun knot (unsuccessfully).   Feeling quite conspicuous now, we  took one final dip in a whirlpool before heading back to the locker room.

On balance, being unfamiliar with the proper etiquette cramped my ability to relax and fully enjoy the sento experience, but I’m eager to give it another go.  And Zara thankfully reserved her commentary about the experience until we were back at home, as she’s still at that stage where the other patrons triggered her curiosity more than the baths.  Jonathan had a wonderfully relaxing time at least.

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