Bathing in Public in Japan

We lost a great deal in the United States with the death of the public bathhouse, which went the way of the streetcar token and the policeman’s sap.  Japan, on the other hand, still has them.  And not only for people who don’t have adequate facilities at home. Bathhouses can be holiday destinations themselves.  (FYI, the Japanese word for a hot bath is O-furo). For many good reasons few Americans will venture into them in Japan, the most important being that it’s hard enough to deal with the Japanese language in front of strangers without also having to be naked at the same time.  So I have put together a little presentation here, in case you ever find yourself walking by one and are overwhelmed by the crazy impulse to go in.

(Like much of my personal writing, this one is made up of various experiences that I had living in Japan for two years.  Some of these experiences were real and some of them went on in my head while I ignored people who didn’t know that I knew Japanese talk about me).

Unfortunately, I can only speak about the customs of the men’s side of the bath house, having failed thus far to gain entry to the women’s side, despite repeated attempts on my part and the fact that my alien registration card clearly stated that I have an advanced degree.

Studies show that the Japanese have been bathing for several centuries at least.  Bathing in Japan has always had its communal side, perhaps because early Japanese did not know that one could heat water with fire.  Many Americans might find the idea of paying good money to sit in a large tub full of naked men rather odd, but in Japan I can assure you that it is a perfectly normal practice.

When you enter the public bathhouse in Japan you will see a counter where you are expected to pay a small fee.  These counters are generally staffed by very fat women, who will give you the traditional surly nod to indicate the door of the men’s section.  Once entering, you will find yourself in a changing room containing benches in front of lockers.

It is expected that you will remove your clothing in this room and put it in these lockers.  If you are too shy to strip naked at this time, you can wear under shorts and perhaps an under shirt into the bathing room proper.  But remember that the Japanese have a taboo against wearing socks in an ofuro.  And it is considered especially barbaric for some reason to enter the bathing area completely naked except for your socks, so be warned.

Before you actually go into the bathing area, which can be entered through the door that you did not use to enter the changing room in the first place (be careful about this!) you will see a couple of vending machines, one of which will be selling soap and the small towels that in Japan also double as washcloths.  Hopefully you will have already brought with you a proper sized bath towel, but if not, half a dozen or so Japanese towels should do in a pinch. 

You can buy a bar of soap and a washcloth/towel of course, but if you don’t, you will find that many people in the bathing area have soap and towels that they are not using, so you can simply use theirs.  In fact, using a stranger’s towel and soap in a Japanese bathhouse is the fastest way I know to meet people very quickly.

Once you enter the bathing area, you will see the large soaking pool, usually full of happy Japanese men laughing and pointing.  You will also see an area with some small stools and buckets with taps coming out of the wall.  In a Japanese bathhouse, as in a private ofuro, one is expected to wash one’s hair, body, and miscellaneous clothing items before entering the soaking tub.  This means entirely rinsing off as well.

Find a nice unoccupied spot next to two unused taps.  You will need two - one to wash with and one to hang your underwear on.  Take off your underwear and hang it on one tap, then wet yourself down with the other tap and begin scrubbing.  Be sure to use the washcloth you borrowed to clean all those hard to get at places.  After you have thoroughly rinsed off, either from the tap or by dumping many buckets of water on your head, it is time to go to the soaking pool.

When testing the soaking pool with one’s toe, the average Westerner is likely to find the water extremely hot.  There are two schools of thought as to how to enter the pool.  The first is known as the “Zen” method, where one sits on the edge and slowly and almost imperceptively lowers oneself into the water.  While this method has its advantages, the true Zen adept will take from 30 to 45 minutes to become fully immersed.  The second method is known as the “American” method.  Here, one simply closes one’s eyes, holds one’s nose, and dives in. 

Once you are under the water, you will find yourself in a world that you have never experienced before.  Don’t be alarmed.  The pain will subside presently as your body adjusts naturally to the 140-degree temperatures.

Raise your head above the water.  You will find that the Japanese have stopped laughing and pointing.  It is Quiet Time in the ofuro, as each man becomes lost in his own thoughts.  Taking care not to intrude in any way on their solitude, this is a perfect opportunity to observe some aspects of Japanese culture that you would normally not get to see.

Some of the men luxuriating in the Ofuro may have folded their washcloths into small squares and placed them on the top of their heads.  No one knows why they do this.  If the bathhouse is any kind of bathhouse at all, you should notice a group of seven or more men at the end of the pool, whose bodies are almost completely covered with what the Japanese call “tattoos”.  In an age where almost everyone seems to be sporting tattoos, even women, the workmanship of Japanese tattoo artists is second to none.  If you go closer, you will see that the colors are particularly vivid, as the Japanese have learned to produce dyes that do not fade.  Look even more closely and you will discover that much of the subtle shading that from afar looked to be part of the coloring is actually the result of tiny, almost microscopic cross hatching.  Notice the extreme attention to detail.

Then pull back a bit.  When a Japanese man decides to get these kinds of tattoos, he picks a theme that he will then keep to religiously until all the skin on his body is covered.  There are number of traditional themes, and these can include mythological animals, episodes from the lives of the gods or famous warriors, or mass murder.  Sometimes it is hard to tell clearly what the theme really is just from the part of the body appearing above the water, and you may have to dive down to get the full effect of the total design.

Now that you have gotten to expand your cultural horizons, it is time to partake in what the soaking pool is really designed for.  Sit back and relax!!  If you concentrate, you will find yourself floating away in almost total ecstasy.  (You should remember at this point that it is considered extremely rude to urinate in an ofuro, so be discrete.)

After five minutes or so, it is probably time to leave.  Hoist yourself out of the pool, retrieve your underwear, and go to the changing room to dry off.  Once dry and dressed, you should feel absolutely wonderful.  But wait!  Your Japanese bath experience is not quite over!

In the changing room you will probably notice another vending machine selling beverages.  Japanese men like to enjoy light refreshment after bathing, and there is nothing lighter or more refreshing than a nice cup of Japanese sake.

In Japan, sake is considered an alcoholic beverage, which technically it is.  I believe it is considered as such because the average Japanese will begin to feel its affect with as little as one glass.  This is not due to the chemical properties of the drink, but to the well-known fact that the intestine of the typical Japanese is longer than that of the typical Westerner.  (The average Japanese intestine is over 900 feet long.)  This of course means that since the average Western intestine is 7 or 8 times shorter than that of a Japanese person, a Westerner can drink seven or eight sakes with no noticeable effect.  I know that seven or eight cups of vending machine sake may sound daunting to the first timer, but they are so light you should be able to polish them off in 15 or 20 minutes or so.

You should now feel like a new man.  You are now ready to return to your graduate research or your English teaching class with a new sense of purpose, not to mention a heightened knowledge of Japanese culture.

Cheers!  And come back soon!


unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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