In the late 1970’s I was living near Kyoto University in the kind of lodging that students favored. It’s called a geshuku and it was situated above the landlady’s home. There were four rooms that she rented out. My room was a 6 mat tatami room and at the entrance there was a small sink and a place to put a two-ring gas range. There was a closet for futon and that’s it. You had to buy your own small refrigerator and a gas range. The one I got came with a grill for fish that worked fairly well for toast. I didn’t buy a hot water heater, so I got only cold water. There was no heating at all. You’d have to get your own small space heater. And the bathroom, you ask? Well, at the end of the hall there were toilet facilities. The squat version. But at least they flushed. My previous dwelling was a squat toilet that needed to be cleaned out by the honey trucks every two weeks. You always knew when they were in the neighborhood cleaning out toilets; you’d have to run from the smell! Picture a huge hose all wound onto a truck that got carted into the bathroom and then worked as a vacuum. You’d avoid them like the plague.
So, that was the apartment. To bathe I had to go to the public bath or sento. In Kyoto back then they were all over the place and in this student neighborhood I had my pick of three, which was good since they staggered their days off.
The closest one was just a block north of me. I’d grab my basin, soap, shampoo, towel, and clean clothes and choose my time carefully. You’d put everything in your small basin, with the towel on top and walk to it that way. So you always knew if someone was going to the sento when you saw them carrying a basin like this.
It opened at 4 PM and if you went then, the water was the cleanest and you’d be with the obāsan and little kids. I taught English at night and if I went after work (the bath was open until 11 pm) it would be a different crowd. The first few times I went in the afternoon I was hesitant; what were they going to think about this foreign girl patronizing their bath? For the record, I never once saw another foreigner there; this bath wasn’t on a maim drag and there were very few of us then compared to now. And I definitely was an object of kōkishin at first. The grannies quickly asked me where I lived and no doubt got a lowdown on me from my landlady. As they grew accustomed to me, they’d sometimes come over and scrub my back and I’d return the favor. Let me just say how strange that was to me at first!
It was also a revelation seeing old people naked. In America, I’d never seen anyone older than me naked. It just wasn’t done. But I admit it was fascinating to see how women aged. It’s also very normalizing in a sense. After I’d washed in front of a set of faucets and mirror, I would go soak in the tubs, often with one or two others. You’d nod a greeting and then relax in the steaming hot bath. It became a routine I looked forward to and the grannies were now very comfortable with me.
So, one day, I idly asked one of them how to make miso soup. You would have thought I’d started a riot. Everyone had to get in on this discussion. In Kyoto there was a tradition of using white miso or lighter colored miso. Everyone had to talk about which miso and where they bought it. And then there was the issue of dashi and who was using instant (nobody confessed) and what they put in their dashi. I’d never seen the bath as lively as it was on that day. It went way beyond my language abilities at that time and all I really absorbed was what a huge topic it could turn into for the grannies.
But even though I didn’t get any real recipes, I did learn how miso soup was truly a family tradition and just how many variations there could be. In fact, you could make it differently every day of the year by using a mix of miso, different “gu” or ingredients, and a variation on dashi. And after that, the grannies were my friends for life. If I saw them at the fruit and vegetable shop, they’d advise me on what seasonal vegetables to buy.
In the winter, I chose to go to the bath late in the evening, so I could warm up. Remember, my apartment had no heating and some days there would be snow on the ground. I’d warm up in the bath and then hurry home and dive under the ample covers. It almost worked. I’d sleep in the clean clothes I’d changed into at the bath and the next morning I’d get out of bed and quickly head out to a coffee shop to warm up. They had heat. I just had long underwear and layers.
I was young and easily adapted to this lifestyle. My neighbors now are often surprised that I will go out to the mailboxes on a cold day without putting on a coat. My mother often noted that Japanese women of her generation in New York City also would run out without a coat to pick up a carton of milk. Living without central heat makes you tough and impervious to the cold. Yes, still. To this day!
- geshuku – 下宿 boarding house. Rare, these days, but poor students usually lived in these. It would usually be one room, a shared toilet area and a nearby public bath.
- tatami – 畳 bamboo mats that used to cover almost all floors in houses and apartments. Sadly, they are disappearing in new construction. There is nothing like the smell of fresh tatami.
- futon – 布団 bedding. Note this does not refer to a sofa when in Japan!
- sento – 銭湯 public bath. I will probably talk a lot about it in this blog because it was my life for many many years.
- obāsan – おばあさん grandmother, granny, or any old woman of this age.
- kōkishin – 好奇心 curiosity
- dashi – だし a Japanese broth used for miso soup and other cooking. You can buy instant or make your own.
- gu – 具 ingredients