The Japanese Way of Social Nudity
The Rituals & Etiquette of the Japanese Public Bath
By Cheri Sicard
The title of this story is a line from my favorite martial arts movie, an obscure (in the US at least) but campily delightful flick called Shogun Assassin.The film's main character, a fierce samurai named Lone Wolf, has angered the Shogun and is forced to roam the Japanese countryside, constantly on the run. The entire story is told through the eye's of Lone Wolf's infant son, as his baby carriage affords him a perfect vantage point of the action. The pair is relentlessly pursued by the Shogun's ninjas throughout their travels. So clever at disguising themselves are these ninjas that you can trust on one, for you never know who might turn out to actually be a ninja.
Which is how we come to the title of this story. In one scene Lone Wolf and his son have stopped at a country inn for the night. They are tired and road weary and want nothing more than some hot food and a bath, the latter of which would leave them naked and defenseless -- what if the innkeeper turned out to be a ninja? But as the child so prophetically puts it, "sometimes you have to take a chance, if you want to take a bath."
The days of the Shogun are long gone, but public baths still thrive in Japan. They are a popular way of relaxing and a cultural experience that can be quite enjoyable for the foreigner. But too often foreign guests, who may not know the proper customs, ritual and etiquette, are so intimidated by the whole process, their fear keeps them from experiencing the public baths.
Dear reader, I'm here to put those fears to rest. After reading this article you'll know how to enter a bath with grace and style that's equal to any Nihon-jin (Japanese person). After all, sometimes you have to take a chance, if you want to take a bath.
The majority of tourists will encounter a public bath in their hotel, as most of Japan's better hotels offer this amenity. In a large, western-style hotel, there will always be separate baths for men and women. After twelve trips to Japan, I have personally encountered a co-ed public bath only once, and that was at a hot springs resort in a tiny remote mountain village. So remote was this resort, it took hours of driving over narrow twisting mountain roads, through miles and miles of lush green scenery and soggy rice paddies to reach it.
It's likely that I am the sole foreigner to grace this on-sen's (hot springs) presence, before or since. The sight of a very white, chubby, blonde gai-jin (foreign person) attracted quite a stir. I had numerous little old ladies coming up and wanting to touch my hair, coquettishly giggling afterwards. It was all very friendly and great fun in a surreal sort of way. I was fortunate enough to have a translator with me (my Japanese is marginal, at best), through which I was asked to relay various aspects of my life in America to the curious women.
Proper Bath Attire
Unless you're traveling with natives, you're not likely to encounter the co-ed public bath situation and will most likely encounter a public bath in your hotel. The bath experience starts in your room, where you will find a yukata -- a casual cotton kimono. Yukatas are unisex garments. You'll see just as many yukata clad men as women roaming hotel halls, bars, restaurants and gift shops.
It is perfectly acceptable, although not required, to wear the yukata, along with the slippers conveniently provided in your room, on the journey from the room to the hotel's public bath. Now to a foreigner, it may feel as though you're going out in public, in a nice hotel no less, in a bath robe, but I assure you, you will see countless Japanese men, women and children doing just that. If your hotel hapopens to be in a hot springs resort town, it is also acceptable to roam the streets in your yukatas as well. What is not acceptable is to pack the garment in your suitcase when you check out.
Upon entering the public bathroom, you will find shelves on which to leave your shoes or slippers. You don't need to spend very much time in Japan to realize that the Japanese are somewhat "anal retentive" about shoes not being worn inside of homes, rooms and even some restaurants. You go in, the shoes stay out! (Needless to say, it's a good idea to replace all your socks with holes before visiting Japan in order to avoid embarrassment.)
Okay. So your shoes are off. Somewhere before this you have probably been greeted by the bath house attendant and given a small oblong towel. The towel is hardly bath sized, and foreigners often wonder, "what good is this little thing going to do me?" The towel actually serves two purposes, but we'll get to that in a minute.
Next you will go into the changing room where you'll find either lockers or baskets for your clothes. Sometimes you'll find both. I dare say the lockers are hardly necessary. Street crime is virtually non-existent in Japan. I wouldn't hesitate to leave my belongings in an open basket. No one would think of ever touching them. That's another hard concept for foreigners to get used to. It takes time to adjust to not constantly being on the defensive (maybe you're lucky enough to not have to be on the defensive at home, but I live in Los Angeles).
So now your shoes and clothes are off. You're ready to enter the bath proper. Rule number one: do not parade around as if to say "I'm here, I'm naked and I'm proud!" The first purpose of the little towel you were given is to discreetly cover yourself. Admittedly, the towel isn't large enough to cover all of you, especially if, like me, you are larger than the average Japanese person. Simply cover as much of your front with the towel as possible when walking around. The Japanese have a taboo against pubic hair, so if you have to pick and choose which area to take priority in covering, this is it. (Even hard core pornography in Japan has a discreet little black dot covering the offensive hair.)
Don't worry too much about the etiquette of covering up. These are very loose guidelines and no one is going to be upset if they do see you naked, it just seems to be the custom to act with modesty.
The Most Important Part
OK. Listen up. Here comes the most important etiquette point of a Japanese public bath. DO NOT and I repeat, DO NOT head directly into the pool of hot water, regardless of how tempting that may be. You must first wash.
Custom dictates that before entering a public bath, one much approach a level of cleanliness that is not unlike a virgin preparing for a sacrifice to the ancient pagan gods. You think I'm kidding? Just watch the Japanese scrubbing away.
On the perimeters of the bathroom you will find numerous stations outfitted with small stools, showers and various soaps and shampoos. Here's where the towel's second job comes in. Use it as a wash rag. Pick an unoccupied shower station, turn on the water, give the little stool a quick rinse and have a seat. You are now expected to wash and scrub every inch of your body. You almost can't overdo this ritual cleansing. The hot water of the public bath is meant for soaking, not for cleaning.
I've seen some women take as much as a half hour at this procedure, although what they are doing for this long is beyond me. About ten minutes or so of washing will keep you from being thought of as the "ugly American".
Hair washing is optional. As for your, shall we say, private area, it should be cleaned, but don't make a production out of it. Discretion and speed seem to be the key here.
Once the washing process is complete, you are now free to enjoy the bath. Be warned, it is hot. Much hotter than the typical American hot tub. There is generally a section with bubbles and a section without, which is usually somewhat cooler (although not much) in temperature. You usually also find a cold water plunge pool nearby. The brave will submerge themselves in the frigid pool. Many public baths also include sauna facilities.
That's basically it. Sit back and enjoy the soak. Depending on the particular bath, you may have a view of a lovely garden, or even a window on the outside world from the top of a high rise building. Afterwards, you'll be greeted by all sorts of amenities in the changing room, such as skin moisturizers, hair brushes and hair ties, tooth brushes, etc. You will also often find wonderful massage chairs to further elevate your level of relaxation, the kind we would all have in our homes if only we could afford them. After the bath, it is perfectly acceptable (and convenient) to wear your yukata back to your hotel room.
The baths are usually open late, till midnight or so (each hotel varies, so check the hours when you arrive). A soak in the public bath is a wonderful way to get ready for a good night's sleep. Now that you know the rules, you will no longer feel as though you're taking such a chance when you want to take a bath!