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Published on 1st January 2018

Sento - or the Japanese art of public bathing

“Haruno is hiding in his room, he can feel the explosions,” says the receptionist Yuu. Haruno is the resident black Labrador, and a smiling statue of him sits by the front door, greeting visitors. The hotel is directly under Mount Hakone: the volcano has become active for the first time in 900 years and is erupting steam. Despite the eruptions and rain, the air is crisp and clean and magenta azaleas bloom everywhere. The stop in Hakone is a last minute detour en-route from Tokyo to Kyoto, upon a Japanese friend’s recommendation.

I’ve come to visit an onsen, a public bath where men and women are segregated. The onsen must be entered naked. I only have a small cloth to preserve some modesty of my 5’11 frame. Despite my self-consciousness, I’m committed to trying it. The tiny, stern attendant explains that the cloth must not enter the bath, and the water cannot be polluted by soap. Luckily the onsen is empty. I enter the bath and sit in the soothing thermal water. It laps around me and my thoughts drift. The distant sound of a child shouting makes me jump. I grasp for the miniscule towel and hurry out. Despite being from northern Europe where sauna culture abounds, I am unused to communal bathing.

The next morning Mount Fuji’s snow-covered peak is just visible amongst powdery clouds. Before driving to the station, my taxi driver Takeru asks what I’ve seen in Hakone. Only the onsen, I tell him. Upon hearing this, he insists on an impromptu tour, refusing to charge me. “You‘re lucky,” he says. “I’m the only English-speaking driver in Hakone!” His car is impeccably clean, with embroidered cotton cloths on the seats. He wears a full suit, tie and gloves. Japanese taxi drivers take great pride in their work.

Takeru takes me to the Hakone imperialist shrine. Its vast red gate and green-roofed temple sit on the shores of Lake Ashi. The shrine is hidden in dense forest. We arrive at a clearing surrounded by giant 400 year old cedar trees. It’s pleasantly cool under the hot June sun, and an overriding feeling of tranquillity reigns.

Takeru shoes me how to pray. He removes his cap, scoops water in a ladle with his right hand and pours it over his left. He repeats the ritual with the other hand. He rinses his mouth and with the remaining water washes the ladle. Next, he rings one of bells hanging above us. In Shintoism the sound of the bell calls God into the shrine. Takeru bows deeply twice and makes a wish. He claps twice and bows again. Finally he throws a coin into an offertory box. “Belief is what’s important,” he explains, “not the amount.”

He leaves me at Hakone station, insisting on buying me an assortment of local bread. We say goodbye with a customary Japanese bow. On the train I bite into a bitter-sweet matcha bun and watch Mount Fuji getting smaller as we speed towards Tokyo.