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Taking a Breather

Sometimes when you're in Tokyo, as wonderful as its bustling atmosphere is, you just want to forget you're in the middle of Tokyo.

Even if the sunsets are gorgeous.

A few weeks ago I was chatting with a guy from Sweden who regularly came to Japan on business and he said that despite how much he loved Tokyo he could never live here because of the lack of green space. Tokyo has its parks, of course, like all major cities, but if you want unspoiled greenery you have to be willing to head at least forty minutes outside of the sprawling metropolis limits. In winter this desire to surround oneself with greenery might not matter as much, but now that spring is seeping into the atmosphere and the upcoming sakura season is on everyone's mind (NHK even puts out an annual "forecast" for sakura!) the neon lights and concrete jungle start to feel a little oppressive.

That's when little hideaways like the Sato Sakura Museum and Kohmeisen come in handy.

The Sato Sakura Museum is a small museum in Nakameguro that specializes in "nihonga," which literally means "Japanese-style painting." Contrary to what the name might imply, nihonga refers to paintings painted after 1900, even if they were painted in a traditional style. Nihonga use pigments derived from natural materials such as minerals, corals, and precious stones; they're painted on washi paper or perhaps silk. However, unlike the old paintings they are based on, post-1900 nihonga have a much wider range of subjects and in some cases blended techniques from Western paintings, or "youga."

Like many Japanese museums, the Sato Sakura Museum's exhibits are thematic and, in this case, the theme was "sakura," or, more broadly, "flowers." A little bit of spring tucked away in the heart of the city.

The first floor featured a selection of paintings by artist Nogi Watanabe:

While the other two floors consisted of sakura-themed works drawn from the museum's extensive collection.

Personally, I'm a fan of the dreamy nature of nihonga. Admittedly, paintings of sakura aren't the most thought-provoking of pieces, but they're pleasant to look at and universally-pleasing. Ultimately the Sato Sakura Museum was a charming diversion from the grind of daily life, and I would certainly visit again during, say, fall or winter to see any thematic exhibits from those seasons.

Continuing my goal of ultimate relaxation, I walked down the street to Kohmeisen, a sento (public bath) that had recently been renovated by designer Kentaro Imai.

While the outside doesn't look like much, the inside is gorgeous:

Since everyone is communally bathing together and, therefore, nude, phones and cameras are obviously not allowed, so I sourced this photo from the internet.

There's also an external bath, which is a rarity for Tokyo. Every five days or so the rooftop outdoor tub switches between men and women, and I had timed my visit to coincide with a "women" day, so I was able to relax outside, listening to the rumble of the nearby Hibiya Line from just beyond the wooden screen as I soaked in the hot water. Bliss. Definitely worth the ~$5 cost.

 I love hot springs, so sento are a nice alternative. The communal nudity doesn't bother me, either: a natural immunity, of sorts, developed through years of playing sports, gym locker rooms, and having to change for choir concerts with forty other people. You just get used to it, though I do know people who aren't really into the whole "skinship," as it's referred to, side of Japanese friendships. You could definitely tell who the locals were, though, because they recognized each other and clearly had well-practiced and maintained bathing routines. As the only foreigner there I stuck out, to say the least, but since it's rude to stare in Japan when you're fully clothed, it's even more rude to stare at someone else who is naked so I could just sort of avoid everyone's eyes and broil myself in peace.

Now I just have to wait for the REAL blossoms...


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