Mikoku-yu does not have as many “frills” as the sentos I have written about thus far. It doesn’t have a sauna, a large outdoor bath or anime campaigns. It doesn’t have room for all that. Mikokuyu does, however, get the best-use-of space award. That is beyond a doubt.
Mikokuyu is not just clean, it is sublime. High ceilings and good architectural planning ensure that each bath is no less than a work of art. Striking murals, traditional lattice doors, and wagara patterned tiles are reflected in the dark water to form rippling canvases, which one may enter into and exit at will. And if that weren’t enough, there is also a zen rock garden to ponder on the terrace.
Even the shower area, which is not usually a place to stop and ponder beauty, is aesthetically pleasing. At Mikokuyu, the color scheme of the tile patterns in the washing area makes me want to take my time getting nice and clean before moving onto the bath area.
The baths use genuine onsen water, which is always impressive for a place that charges 480 yen to enter, no matter how common this is becoming in Tokyo. The hottest of the baths is very very hot, which I like. The mizuburo could stand to be a bit colder, but it is fine in the winter, or for the novice. Next to the jet massage baths, there is a personal bath where you push a button and a stream of water falls on your back from a faucet near the ceiling. Call it a gravity massage. Both this bath and the kusuri-yu are a bit nurui for my tastes, but the walls are pretty, so I can forgive. The small rotemburo could also be hotter, but it is gorgeous, with fleeting views of the Tokyo Skytree glittering through the cracks between traditional lattice patterned windows. The light reflects off the water and dances with shadows on the wooden ceiling. It’s very past meets future; very Tokyo.
There are two floors, which rotate weekly, so that visitors can appreciate their difference in decor. This is fortunate, as Mikokuyu is not just a bathhouse, it is an aesthetic wonder. So much so, that it nearly tore me apart that I couldn’t take a picture of the inside. (Maybe the signboards are right after all, and all foreign people really do want to take their phones onto the bath with them.)
Ambiance is another aspect that sets Mikokuyu apart. There is definitely a friendly feel to the place. Old women take turns washing each others backs, which, in my experience, tends to happen mostly in sentos where warm feelings of neighborliness are abound. Whenever I visit mikoku-yu , I almost always make a new friend. Or an acquaintance, at least. Either way, that says a lot. Sento friend-quaintences are the best. We often come from very different walks of life, and would never even think of striking up a conversation on the street. But bathing naked in the same tub will invariably break down more than a few social barriers.
“Nihon no ofuro ga suki?” An older woman asked me in the locker room of Mikoku-yu just last week, as we began getting dressed after the bath. By the time we were both partially clad, several Things had been established.
1) I do, in fact, like Japanese sento very much.
2) A comprehensive analysis of Mikoku-yu’s merits as compared to other sentos in Shitamachi.
3) She is a descendant of Genghis Kahn.
With each layer of clothing we put back on, our differences became more and more apparent. As I zipped up an old sweatshirt, my older acquaintance donned a hat with a feather in it. But we were too invested in our conversation to care very much for appearances by then. When we reached the elevator, we had also covered the following topics.
4) She is of Korean heritage, but was born in Japan.
5) The Japanese are not composed of a single race, no matter how much they believe it so.
6) The world is going Hell.
7) Human beings are stupid.
8) She wrote a book about her life, which is currently being translated into English by some guy at a university whose name I forgot, and I should read it.
9) Nuclear war is bad.
10) Human beings are very, very stupid.
And yet, idiotic as we are, humans have created sento. And Mikokuyu. So we can’t be all that bad.