Correspondents' Eye on Tokyo:
The Community of Sento in Tokyo with Dina Kartit
Love-struck by Tokyo
Dina Kartit came to Japan for the first time as part of a university exchange program in 2016, and when she arrived in Tokyo, the real-life lights and flavors of the city exceeded her expectations. Previously getting most of her knowledge of Tokyo through two-dimensional depictions in anime, experiencing it with her five senses gave her a newfound, immersive appreciation of the city.
Something that immediately stood out to Kartit about Tokyo was its striking atmosphere. On her very first night in Tokyo, she was greeted with a warm and welcoming ambience: "We were walking down the streets in Kichijoji (a commercial neighborhood in Musashino City) and it was just beautiful. There was a bit of this red color emanating from the restaurants and bars, and the bright blue from the karaoke venues. It was so nice."
More so than the ambience of the city, her overwhelmingly positive experience with Japanese food came as an unexpected joy. Natto, for example, is a sticky, fermented soybean dish that first-timers often struggle with, but Kartit immediately loved it.
Her sweet tooth was also more than satisfied in this colorful city, and she was a big fan of mochi (rice cake) sweets; "I remember my friends knew me as the girl with the mochi. I always had one with me because I just loved it. It was unexpected. I didn't know much about Japanese food aside from what we have in Europe. So to discover new Japanese food that I liked was a big step for me, and a good one."
After her year in Japan, Kartit knew she wanted to come back to Tokyo as soon as possible. Upon discovering the Global Governance program at the Hitotsubashi University's School of International and Public Policy, she seized the opportunity by furthering her Japanese language study.
A New Chapter, Bookmarked by Sento
Acceptance into Hitotsubashi University allowed her to explore a new area of Tokyo: Kunitachi City in Tokyo’s west. It was here that she found her new love of sento (communal bathhouse).
Kunitachi City, while still a part of the Tokyo Metropolis, offers quite the contrast to the stereotypical depictions of central Tokyo, regarded as closer to mountains and rivers than skyscrapers and subways.
The atmosphere does not get much more local than that of a neighborhood sento, which is where Kartit began to find solace after a long day. Like many first-timers, her initial experience was not as relaxing, as she was not used to baring it all in quite this way. But it was not long before she embraced the culture whole-heartedly. She liked the challenge, and came to love the idea that "no-one cares."
On the difference between onsen (hot springs) and sento, she explained, "I would say my preference for sento is probably because it's a more local experience. It's not really a touristy thing, I really felt like people were going there at the end of the day. It was just a relaxing moment. I liked that, and it's something that I didn't feel as strongly with onsen."
While appreciating the variety of bath scents and the meditative and relaxational self-care aspects of sento, a big part of her enjoyment came from the social element. "I think of sento as a mostly social experience. Just being surrounded by other people, and whether we talk or not is unimportant, but just that we are all together is something that I really liked about it."
Now, after returning to France, the sento experience is something that she misses the most: "I miss sento because of the ambience, because of the people I met there and the amusing stories I heard." She recalls that other sento-goers were always kind to her, and intrigued to talk to someone from across the globe. "I never had a bad time in the sento."
A Lasting Relationship with Tokyo
Currently, Kartit is working in France as a financial journalist for Reuters, but she hopes that she will be able to keep her relationship with Japan and Tokyo. If she were to move back to Tokyo, she would love to take on the challenge of covering energy or medical-related news, but knows this is a tough field to break into in Japan.
"If my career doesn't take me back to Tokyo now or any time soon, at the very least I hope I can keep this link with Japan as a whole while in Europe."
Photos courtesy of Dina Kartit