In the past, we took you into a sento (Japanese bathhouse) and showed you its rich visual treats. Today, PingMag takes a look at this institution as place of social interaction: German photographer Julia Baier spent several weeks documenting the vivid life inside a sento. The result is Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse published by Berlin-based Peperoni Books in German, Japanese and English. And for those of you that can’t make it to her photo exhibition right now at the Japanese-German Center Berlin, Germany — PingMag had a chat with Julia about her bathhouse experiences.
Written by Verena
When did you first have the idea about a photo series on sento? This wouldn’t exactly be the usual Japan topic…
Sweet! From Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse. © Julia Baier
My first contact with Japan was in 2004: One day I got an e-mail from a Japanese gallery owner, Yoshinori Nomura, who saw my work in France as he was working in a photo gallery in Paris at that time. He wanted to exhibit the public bath, a photo series about German swimming pools in his Out of Place gallery which he had just opened in Nara. And Nomura invited me to come to Japan and produce a new work there. So, I applied for a scholarship from the German VG Bild-Kunst — which I finally got. Thanks to that I went to Japan for five weeks in June and July 2005.
When I arrived I didn’t know anything about sento and the only idea I had was taking pictures of normal daily life in Japan. I tried to find the same swimming pools in Japan as you would have over in Europe. But I only found one on the 8th floor of a building. I realised that there is another bathing culture with the sento being a part of Japanese daily life and at the same time a traditional place.
Which opened doors for you… What was your first sento experience like?
My very first visit was alone and without a camera. I felt kind of a spiritual and deeply peaceful atmosphere and, very quickly, became a true fan! Later, when I started to explore the sento in Nara, I asked people whom I knew from the gallery to go with me. And these friends introduced me in the female section of the sento. Slowly I started to go alone since I went there usually twice a day! And it occurred that, in some sento, the women started to recognise me.
How did you feel as an outsider in this place?
Of course, like in every public place in Japan you are first of all a foreigner, that is obvious. But the women were very polite which made me feel comfortable. For sure, I strictly tried to follow the “rules” not to dive in the pools before washing the whole body first! New to me was that it was incredibly hot — especially the hot tubs — and the humidity inside!
Oh, yes! And how did you perceive the people interacting inside the bathhouse?
There can be so many different atmospheres and moods in a sento — it can get pretty crowded, but also there can be a calmness which impressed me a lot. Also, it depends on the time you go there: In the afternoon, you can find yourself very often alone and it is usually calmer than in the evening times.
Overall I had the impression that the sento is a place of communication. People seem to go more often to the one in their neighbourhood than try to experience a different sento. Meaning they know each other more or less, which sometimes creates a pretty familiar atmosphere.
For folks who never had the chance to experience a public bath, could you explain what happens there? There used to be bathhouses in Europe as well…
Typical sento entrance with the characteristic Hiragana letter. From “Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse.” © Julia Baier
From early, 3 p.m., to late, people from the neighbourhood come here to wash and cleanse themselves, to sink into the hot water and relax. Sento are gender separated and visitors sit on a small stool to wash themselves with a bowl of hot water. The water is poured over the body before soaping begins, followed by rubbing, scrubbing and carefully rinsing off. The entire washing process is repeated again and again. During that, the visitors keep chatting with the others, or are lost in their own thoughts — just as they choose. Once this cleansing process is over and all of the suds are carefully washed off, people climb into one of the bathtubs which are very hot!
The origin of the sento stretches back to the 12th century when monks opened their baths to the public. It was the only possiblity to wash yourself because there weren’t any bathrooms at home. By today, even if almost every flat has a bathroom, the sento still exist but their number is declining. However, I heard that only in Tokyo there a still more than 1,000 sento left!
What a pity! And your photo series shows so well the warm atmosphere inside! We really want to know: How did you manage to get access and take pictures?
First of all, the sento is a very warm place and it was my wish to show it like that. Of course I knew that this would be a delicate plan since people are bathing completely naked. However in the beginning, I had friends who helped me taking pictures. The most important thing is to get a feeling for the atmosphere and to show the people that they don’t have to be scared about me and my camera. Of course, I really had to be very careful not to disturb anybody. Sometimes I only took my small camera to take two or three shoots and put it straight back into my bag. Sometimes I just took a bath. Also, I was becoming part of the scenery as a naked bathing person!
So how did you persuade the women since this is a pretty intimate place…?
It’s common to rub each other’s back. From “Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse.” © Julia Baier
I tried to be very open and get in contact and a couple of old ladies became curious about my work. I wanted to give them the feeling that I didn’t want something “bad” but that my only aim was to show parts of their bathing culture [with their permission, of course.] It was in my interest to show the bathing people more like participants — and not just show naked people. There is a big difference! I tried to keep a distance and be very respectful in my behaviour as well as in my photos. I didn’t want to tell any visitor’s personal story, but show bathing people. That’s why I carefully selected the images so that you can’t make out a person’s identity exactly.
How long did it all take? And where are the sento located?
The process took four to five weeks and most pictures were taken in around 20 different sento in Nara, but also in Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, the Kawayu Onsen and near Nagano.
Where there any surprises while you were doing the project?
First of all, I was really surprised of the sento because, coming from Europe, there is this cliché about Japanese places as very well organised with a straight, clear architecture. However, sento are not! They are pure, especially the washing rooms. However, the changing rooms are often very private, unorganised places. You can find so many little things and personal traces there. I think of stepping in a sento is like entering someone’s home. But since it is very unusual to be invited into a home in Japan, I felt like actually being in someone’s private place. I liked that because in Germany it is very popular to invite somebody to your home.
The picture with the cat is so cosy as it shows what a friendly place the sento is and what a central part it plays in Japanese life. But it’s not quite usual to see animals strolling around the sento…
It was the only sento where I could find a cat… I was quite surprised and she was very shy, so she started jumping out of the picture. Else, I only saw some fishes in little aquariums or in a pond in the outside area.
For me, this picture is very meaningful because it shows — as you mentioned — the familiar atmosphere and at the same time it resembles a “classical” picture and could be compared to old paintings with the theme of “bathing.”
And what’s the story behind the naked man laughing? That is just awesome!
Is he… naked? Yes, and laughing! From “Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse.” © Julia Baier
It was also an awesome moment. The gallery owner and his friend invited me to come over to the male section in their favourite sento. It was really the only moment where I had a look there! And it is also the only picture in my book with a male person! In the preface of the book, the gallerist describes in detail the visit of a female German photographer in the male section of a sento.
Let me quote him from there: “Naturally, Julia could only take photos in the women’s section, but she also wanted to take one session of shots in the men’s area. My friend and I offered to accompany her. We explained our plans to the bathhouse attendant and the other bathhouse guests and they gave us their permission. We called to each other across the wall between the men and women’s sections and, when we gave the agreed signal, Julia reached up over the wall and took her shots. She even came over into the men’s changing room. I was rather uncertain how I would look naked in a photo. But the wonderful thing about Julia is that she never makes anyone feel uneasy…”
No way! How was it?
The moment was really short and it was all really funny. You can see it in the photo…
And of course, it was exciting for me, but I wasn’t so surprised. In Germany, I’m used to going to the sauna very often, and there are mixed genders. So I wasn’t too shy. And anyway, there were only four men inside.
Cooling off after a hot bath. From “Sento – the Japanese Bathhouse.” © Julia Baier
You being in Germany, how would you compare the bathhouse culture in the two societies?
In Germany, in former times, there existed some extra bathing cubicles next to the swimming pools where people went to wash themselves due to a lack of a bathroom at home. Nowadays you don’t find them any more. However, these public bathrooms never had a spiritual meaning like a sento has because cleaning the body is not part of a spiritual act in Western Europe.
On the other hand, maybe the importance of a public bath as communication point can be compared. If you enter a swimming pool in Germany, you can also find this neighbourhood character or at least a familiar atmosphere where people like to meet each other.
What will we get to see next from you?
This was not the last time for me to go to Japan and, for sure, I will come back to have a look at the great onsen culture, too!
The Public Pool and Sento, the Japanese Bathhouse by Julia Baier.
At Japanese-German Center Berlin, Berlin-Zehlendorf, Germany. Map.
Running until September 5th, 2008.
Open Mon through Thu from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Fri to 3.30 p.m.