December 23, 2005
At Kyoto’s Ume-yu bathhouse, the customers are young, tough... and tattooed
Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on December 2005
Ask the perfectly manicured ladies inside Kyoto’s Tourist Information Center, and they won’t have heard of Ume-yu, a neighborhood sento whose name means “plum bath.” Nor would they be likely to encourage a visit if they did, for this bathhouse is the favored wallowing spot of the Aizu Kotetsu gang—Kyoto’s much-loathed yakuza.
Ironically, I stumbled on Ume-yu one drizzling evening while searching out a TIC-recommended inn that just happens to lie around the corner in the Shimogyo district. The dark suits catch my eye first: a dozen or so men immaculately groomed, the younger ones sporting buzz-cut hairstyles, the older with the outdated yakuza trademark “punch perm,” all milling outside a white hotel-like building overlooking the meandering Takase River.
What appears to be a funeral wake actually takes place nightly, I’m later informed by my innkeeper, as the Aizu Kotetsu’s henchmen take their baths and spruce up before heading off to their “business appointments” in Kyoto’s nightclub precincts.
If the dark suits and furrowed brows fail to spark my curiosity, then the black Audis and Mercedes with tinted windows do not. Two of each sit idling in the motor pool with their drivers smoking thoughtfully beside them.
On entering Ume-yu, an elderly woman relieves me of ¥350 (which is on a par with other local bathhouses) at a counter that divides the men’s from women’s bathing section. The interior is no different than any other sento in Japan with its row of lockers lining the wall and a corner-mounted TV blaring a baseball game and cheesy game show ads. What makes Ume-yu unique becomes immediately apparent when I enter the changing room: It’s shoulder-to-shoulder with serious young men whose long faces fall away to enough full-body tattoos to compile a pictorial history of Japanese folklore.
While I gingerly strip, six more mobsters show up, and as they shed their suits, the tattoo convention grows larger. I find myself standing in a human sea of green carp, fire horses, and dragons that writhe down backs and race across a dozen thigh and calf muscles. Over one goon’s shoulder, a scowling masterless samurai, or ronin, fights dragons in a swirling mist. On his other, a half-woman, half-fish creature lolls in heavy seas beneath Mount Fuji.
A room filled with yakuza is not a place for long, lingering stares—though it’s impossible not to gawk at one fellow’s hip-to-ankle artwork depicting an epic journey of a bearded shogun through ancient Japan, all etched in amazing detail.
Keeping one’s cool in the face of a heavy mafia presence is not the most difficult part of the Ume-yu experience, however. Being gently simmered to death soon becomes one’s foremost fear. Not even a hardened gangster can brave the scalding hot tubs without a wince or two. Several were already turning from pink to red, putting an end to all idle banter. So I just sit there, surrounded on all sides by Kyoto’s tough guys, eyes to the front and becoming dizzier with every wafting steam cloud.
As for the sauna, the doorknob is so hot that bathers risk first-degree burns just trying to enter. Inside, a furnace of hot, choking steam burns the lungs of all who do not hold their breath. The piped music of a wailing songstress offers no respite as the out-of-control steam-maker keeps up its hissing.
Back in the cool of the changing room, I am surprised to find the counter lady chatting amiably with the fully naked mobsters while she ambles about collecting their sodden towels. Like a kind old auntie, she laughs at their jokes and coddles them as if they were rogue nephews.
To my relief, a sudden foghorn yell comes from outside the bathhouse, and in a flurry of black suits, crisp white shirts, and Armani vapor trails, the entire mob hurtles out the door. The room has emptied in less than 15 seconds.
I leave Ume-yu soon after—cleaner, but emotionally leaner.