文藝春秋, 2001

Goddess of the Sento, by Hiromi Hoshino

Bungeishunju, 2001

[No English translation available]

Reading essays can be like putting together a puzzle that leaves you with a picture of the author. This was certainly the case with the 39 essays that make up 銭湯の女神 (Goddess of the Sento). Hiromi Hoshino, a freelance writer and photographer, wrote these essays after her return from Hong Kong, where she lived from August 1996 to October 1998. Her essays, which cover everything from how to read a newspaper and 100 yen shops to Japan’s garbage system and paper marriages, are not, ostensibly, about herself, but the little details I picked up formed a picture that explained where Hoshino’s perceptive and sharp views come from.

Hoshino mentions in passing that throughout her life, people have been unable to tell whether she’s male or female, and her height and large-boned frame meant that there were never school uniforms in her size. This may go some way in explaining that outsider perspective that pervades her essays. She never tries to appear more feminine—she keeps her hair short and chooses clothes based on comfort and durability. Hoshino loves sento (communal bath houses), but doesn’t feel comfortable in onsen (hot springs that tend to be travel destinations rather than part of a daily routine). Even though it’s more expensive, she always buys the smallest bottle of shampoo because she can’t imagine having the time to use up a bigger bottle before the urge to travel hits her again. She went through a punk phase, and yet is scathing about Japanese punks who  imitate British punks with their t-shirts depicting Queen Elizabeth with her eyes masked by “God Save the Queen,” instead of finding something of their own to rebel against.

This is about the extent of the personal details the reader is given. These essays are really an attempt to readjust to life and grapple with Japanese society after her years in Hong Kong. Although she’d lived there when she was 21 and easily melted back into her old routine after returning to Japan, this time she was never able to fully adjust. What she used to take for granted no longer seems universal, and she begins to doubt where she had never doubted before. She always feels slightly uncomfortable.

This is the Hong Kong neighborhood in which Hiromi Hoshino lived in 1996-1998, described in her book「転がる香港に苔は生えない」.

After the noise and crowds of Hong Kong, Hoshino craves a quiet apartment with good light. This means compromising by renting an apartment without a bath (showers are not standard in Japan), still common in older parts of Japan and cheap apartment complexes. Her regular trips to the sento become an essential part of her life, depicted in the seven essays in this book that are devoted to sento. Her days follow the same pattern: apartment, family restaurant (her “office”), sento, apartment. She uses orange crates as tables and bookshelves in her apartment rather than spending money on furniture, and works at all hours. This explains why her New Year’s goals one year were to “wake up in the morning, go to bed at night and go out to buy the newspaper in the morning” (once she had the hang of this, she refined these goals to include washing her face when she woke up and went to bed, taking a bath as much as possible and brushing her teeth before bed).

The entrance to a sento; the ゆ printed on the noren (curtain) means “hot water.”

Hoshino’s almost monkish life explains her impatience with young people who ask her advice on how to become freelance writers or photographers. She knows that there is nothing romantic about being a freelancer, and she is confounded by the tendency to confuse the “free” in “freelance” with “freedom.” The young people seeking her advice want to be free, but they also want stability; they want to create art, but also buy the latest fashions and live in a comfortable apartment. There are too many things they are not willing to give up.

Hoshino works at family restaurants (casual, inexpensive restaurants similar to Denny’s in the US) because she wants that connection with people, and yet she doesn’t want to actually talk to them or interact on a deeper level. She describes herself as the epitome of the “lonely modern Japanese person.” Having travelled throughout Europe, Hong Kong and China, she notes that every country has places where you can go and sit all day and get a sense of the community, the distance between people and how they spend their time. In Tokyo, family restaurants function as this proxy.

When I see the gaggles of ebullient housewives gather after tennis school, I can’t help but feel sympathy for their husbands who are at this moment being worked to the bone by their companies. And yet I hold my tongue because I can’t even imagine the depression of women under the pressure of housework and child-rearing. Couples come to the restaurant and spend the whole time talking to other people on their cell phones, leaving me overcome with the sense of their loneliness. But aren’t I lonely too? So I say nothing. Then there are the young fathers who, unable to quiet their screaming child, simply hand the child over to their wives as if he were a parcel, demanding that the wife keep him quiet. And I have to desperately hold back my urge to tell the young mother, as she wordlessly tries to comfort her child, to grab the child and escape while she still can. I’m not sure who began calling these restaurants “family restaurants, but surely you can hear the irony in the abbreviation “family resu,” which sounds all too close to “family-less.”

In one of the darkest essays in her book, Hoshino writes of biking to a family restaurant late at night to finish some work before flying to Hong Kong the next day. On her way home, just as the last train of the night has arrived in the local station, she is attacked by two teenage boys who throw her off her bike and against a storefront, kicking her before running off. She is bruised and upset, of course, but what really scares her is that no one came to her aid, even though the streets were full of people leaving the train station. Hoshino lay sprawled on the ground for some time, petrified by the conviction that this indifference and reluctance to get involved means that she could be killed at any time for no reason at all. Despite her injuries, she leaves for Hong Kong the next morning as planned. After all, although in Hong Kong she was occasionally accosted on the streets by complete strangers blaming her for Japan’s behavior in WWII, other strangers would immediately come to her defense, resulting in a heated argument that left everyone invigorated.

Sento become an essential antidote for Hoshino after a day working in family restaurants. On the wall of a neighborhood sento, campaign posters for the Tokyo Sento Association proclaimed, “Wash away your stress in the bath again today,” which is exactly what she did.

This picture shows the Tokyo Sento Association’s promotional poster recommending that we all “wash away our stress in the bath again today.” The clock in the picture indicates that it is just after 5pm, and the OL (office ladies) here are holding their sento gear (wooden bucket and all) as they study a map. There is a sento in the background–you can just see its tall white chimney.

Hoshino can’t quite figure out why she is so happy going to the sento, but her mother claims that it is because people who go to the sento regularly are more “real.” According to her philosophy, Japan’s prosperity has spoiled people so that the thought of living in a house without a bath has become an unimaginable inconvenience. People are consumed by the desire to earn as much as they can so they can buy brand names and the latest technology. “But people who go to the sento have turned their backs to this—they know what they really need and what they can go without.” Here are people who don’t care about the latest fashion, and are not attached to their cell phones. Refreshingly, the women at the sento are not particularly thin either—their extra flesh is comforting to Hoshino after the sight of young girls walking in heels on stick-thin legs. These are the type of women who can survive an apocalypse, she feels, giving her hope again after a day working in family restaurants.

A typical sento, with the traditional picture of Mt. Fuji painted on the wall; patrons sit on stools in front of the faucets to wash before entering the bath (photograph from the Tokyo Sento website).

In the afterword to the hardcover edition of this book, Hoshino writes that just after finishing these essays, she had decided to move to an apartment with a bath in an attempt to put her life on a more even keel. She had been working such late hours that she couldn’t make it to the sento before closing time, and she’d fall into bed unwashed and without having eaten properly. She writes of feeling guilty for “abandoning” sento, and sure enough, by the time she wrote the afterword to the paperback edition, she had moved again, this time purposely choosing an apartment near a sento.

Hinode-yu, an historic sento in Kyoto (photograph by Stuart Gibson)

About the author: Born in Tokyo in 1966, Hiromi Hoshino grew up playing in her father’s workshop, where he made molds for industrial products. After graduating from college, she worked for a shipping company but only lasted eight months. She became the assistant of photographer Joji Hashiguchi and began to work independently in 1994. Hoshino wrote about her experiences in Hong Kong in『転がる香港に苔は生えない』(A Rolling Hong Kong Gathers No Moss), for which she won the 32nd Oya Soichi Non-fiction Prize. In 2012, she won the Second Ikeru Hon Prize and the 63rd Yomiuri Prize for Literature (travelogue category) for『コンニャク屋漂流記』(Adventures of the Konnyaku-ya), in which she traces her family’s roots as fishermen. In 『戸越銀座でつかまえて』(Caught in Togoshi-Ginza), published in 2013, Hoshino writes of returning to live with her parents as an unmarried, childless daughter with two cats.