From the Foreign to Familiar: Bathing with Strangers[box]From the Foreign to Familiar will address the complexities of being a foreigner in Japan and the importance of learning through observation and engagement. This column will debunk the unique customs that are often deemed weird or strange by Westerners, and provide insight into deeper meanings and definitions of intimacy, family and community in Japanese culture.[/box] “Shall I scrub your back?” offered the elderly woman sitting at the neighboring stool.
“Yes, Thank you,” I replied as I nodded my head in a bow and then angled myself so this lady, whose name I never did learn, could soap and scrub my back with a wash cloth. This wasn’t at a spa where I was paying for a body scrub, it was the neighborhood hot spring I had been frequenting for a couple of years. This simple gesture by one of the regulars let me know I was now considered one of them. It didn’t result in any radical changes to my routine. It’s not like I started bringing my lunch and eating with the ladies in the common room, but we did exchange smiles, greetings and simple chitchat regularly after that. It was a subtle thing, a change of tone and mood. So much of “getting” Japan is about learning how to recognize and appreciate subtlety. You might think there is not much that is subtle about bathing with strangers, but you’d be mistaken.
Public bathing is no longer a necessity of everyday life in Japan they way it used to be. When I first moved to Japan in the late 1980s some of my friends lived in apartments without baths or in rooming houses and a visit to the neighborhood sento (public bath) was part of their daily routine. Now almost all homes and apartments have their own baths and showers and public bathing is considered mainly a leisure activity enjoyed at natural hot springs spas, known as onsen, or at “super sento” leisure centers that have an elaborate array of baths with various features, including herbal baths, jacuzzi-style baths and waterfall features where the water cascades from above to massage your head, neck and shoulders if you sit directly beneath it. An evening’s stay at an onsen can cost hundreds of dollars and includes dinner and breakfast, while a visit to a sento or super sento will set you back less than $10 and you may stay there anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours.
Of course, initially it felt weird to bathe naked in front of strangers, friends and coworkers. I grew up in northern New England, where people tend to be conservative in dress and manners. I have as many hangups about my body as anyone raised in modern America would, but as I noticed how naturally women of all ages who grew up in Japanese culture carried themselves in public baths I began to realize that trying to shield from view the parts of my body I am not fond of with a small washcloth or some unnatural posture only drew more attention and amplified my discomfort. I admired the elderly women who moved gracefully and naturally, comfortable with themselves and their place in this world, and wanted to become more like them. And so with this, as with so many other things in my life, I decided that the “fake it ‘til you make it” approach was the way to handle it. The first step was to stop trying to hide myself. Over time this turned into acceptance and eventually comfort and the discovery that an atmosphere of modesty and poise is possible even when you aren’t wearing any clothes.
The Scrub Down
The pre-eminent rule of bathing in Japan, whether in a public bath or at home, is to always wash your hair and body thoroughly before you enter the bath. The basics of public bathing are simple. You undress in the locker room and leave your clothes in a locker or basket. You can bring a small hand towel with you into the bath area and maybe a small caddy with shampoo and other toiletries, but never any food, beverage, clothing or larger towels. There will be one area with short stools, buckets and faucets and then one or more larger baths for soaking. You pull up a stool and wash your hair and body at one of the faucets. Shampoo and body soap are usually supplied. Wash thoroughly. Take your time and scrub all your parts and then rinse with the small bucket or the handheld shower, if there is one and you prefer that. You can chat with your neighbors if you know them, but don’t feel obliged to strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Silence is considered a comfortable state in Japan.
Soaking Your Cares Away
Once you have made yourself clean it’s time for relaxation. Japanese baths tend to be hot, from about 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. There is usually a ledge or bench in the bath that allows you to ease yourself into the hot water and sit comfortably with your legs extended and your head, shoulders and neck exposed. If it feels too hot at first just ease your way in and allow yourself time to adjust to the heat. Sit and relax for as long as feels good. It might be five minutes or thirty minutes. If there are several different baths, try them all and when you find the one you like best, stay there a little longer. Move slowly. You don’t want to slip and fall. Don’t splash. It’s bad manners. Staring is also bad manners. If someone is looking at you and it’s making you feel uncomfortable, a little direct eye contact and a small smile and a polite nod of the head may snap them back into remembering their manners. It’s not everyday you see a foreigner in a public bath. They may find you fascinating and wonder where you came from and how you know how to behave. If someone does strike up a conversation with you use it as an opportunity to ask questions about the area or even about etiquette. Japanese people generally won’t criticize or correct you for doing things improperly, but if you ask for their help they will be happy to oblige and will appreciate your interest in their culture.
No matter how eager you are to assimilate and learn the rules, if you have large and obvious tattoos you may be denied entry to public baths. Many facilities have rules that prohibit bathing by people with tattoos. In Japan tattoos are mainly associated with the yakuza, organized crime syndicates, and outside of some urban sub-cultures regular citizens do not have tattoos. The presence of tattooed patrons will cause other bathers to feel uncomfortable and pretty much the worst thing you can do in Japan is cause trouble for others. If you have a tattoo that can be covered by a bandage, find a waterproof one and cover it. If you have extensive ink, you might get by due to your foreign-ness but be prepared to be stared at even more, or to leave without protest if asked.
Bathing in general is a keystone of daily life in Japan. Even at home, baths are more than just good hygiene. They mark the end of the day and are a time to unwind and relax in preparation for a good night’s sleep. Just as in the public baths, you wash your body before soaking. And also like in the public baths, the bath water is not drained and refilled between bathers. Traditionally the order of bath taking goes from guest to family members in order of seniority, although in modern Japan it’s not quite so firmly fixed. It’s common that young children bathe together or with parents or even grandparents. This is considered a form of “skinship” a type of intimacy that is important in a culture where public displays of affection between family members are a rarity. The tub itself, which is shorter and deeper than American baths, keeps the water heated between bathers and in resource-conscious Japan it is also common to use the previous night’s bath water for the following day’s laundry wash cycle.
I have soaked in communal baths at an opulent ocean-side onsen resort with coworkers, after a day at the beach with friends, at the gym, on the upper floors of sleek city hotels with a view of the city lights spread out before me, and under the stars in outdoor baths set in beautiful gardens. One of my favorite things to do after a long flight to Japan is to find the communal bath at whatever hotel I have booked and have a nice long soak to unwind after hours in transit. It might be easier and more private to shower in my room, but I find it much more relaxing to slip into the cotton yukata robe in my room and find my way to the big bath. Even in hotel baths, there are lockers, clean towels and toiletries supplied. The lighting is subdued and there is always a view of some kind of greenery or stone and water feature, which may be small yet always elegant. The sound of the water circulating into the bath and echoing off the walls retunes my ears after hours of listening to the loud, low hum of jet engines. I can stretch my arms and legs that were cramped and constricted in economy seating and feel my blood circulate more freely. And best of all, I can appreciate the very palpable feeling of being back in Japan, enjoying a quintessentially Japanese experience.