Warm in Here ...

Yesterday afternoon a couple of visitors to the Asakusa shop and I were having a discussion about Japanese public baths (yes, our shop is the kind of place where such a discussion is not anything unusual at all ...) and at one point somebody wondered aloud just when it was that bathing here became segregated between the sexes. The young girl who was on shop duty hazarded that perhaps this happened back in the 'Black Ships' era when the Japanese first learned that other societies thought that mixed bathing was 'uncivilized' behavior.

One of the visitors thought that the change had taken place in Meiji time, with the transition to a 'modern' society - again under considerable Western influence. I myself added that I was sure that I had read about an episode in the post-war era, when the Occupation authorities had put in place a ban on mixed bathing, with the result that many bath operators had stretched a rope across the center of their bath, in order to comply with at least the letter of the law, if not its spirit.

I have to admit that my story sounds much more apocryphal than the other two, but perhaps they are all true to some extent, as I know from first-hand experience that the Japanese attitude to nudity is far more relaxed than in the societies in which I grew up.

I told them about an episode from my earlier days in Japan, when I was in the early years of work on my 100 Poets print series. I had visited one of the professional printers, a man who had offered advice on a number of previous occasions. I had called in advance to ask if it was OK to come by, and getting a positive response, I dropped in at their home workshop. The workroom is up on the second floor, and hearing a shouted 'Come on up!' response to my knock, I let myself in and climbed the stairs.

When I came into the room, I found three of the family working. The craftsman himself and one of his sons sat at their usual benches, and - they must have had a backlog of work - his wife was also working at a temporary low bench, wielding a baren across the back of some printing paper.

Did I mention that it was summertime? The men were in very loose workmen's clothing, and the wife had pushed her casual kimono back from her upper body and was naked from the waist up. As I took my place on a cushion one of them had pushed out for me, the craftsman said something to his wife, along the lines of, "Hey, we've got a guest ...", and in response, she pulled her garment up around her shoulders. But no further, and she didn't bother to close it.

I should perhaps also mention that this was not some 'little old lady', but a woman just slightly older than myself, and during our conversation, I had to be 'careful' when it was her turn to speak and I had to turn in her direction to politely listen.

When the Asakusa shop visitors heard this story, they thought I was pulling their legs ... "Dave, that sort of thing just doesn't happen in modern Japan!" Well, that makes me wonder just how old I'm getting, but I think that what it demonstrates is not so much to do with modernity, as with the fact that even here within contemporary Tokyo, a 'Shitamachi' culture does still survive.

In the working class districts, in the small wooden houses that line the narrow back streets, life moves at a different pace, and people live with a different ethos. This is where I live now, and although I'm coming late to the party, I'm very much enjoying my new life here, in our interesting shop, the nearby shokudo and other similar establishments, and of course the public bath.

But no matter how much I try and convince them, the girls on our shop staff just don't want to 'dress the part'!


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