It took me three tries to get used to going to public bathhouses.
The first time, I was with my (elderly, male) Japanese teacher and two other (white, pale) students. We went to a mountain retreat to celebrate the end of a study term. The bathhouse and hotel were situated on the banks of a beautiful, mountain river. The air was just beginning to gain its springtime warmth and everything was just charming. Until it came time to take the waters.
First, we had to get naked. And there was no privacy. Anywhere. Not like in a locker room in the States where there are at least some concessions to the uncomfortableness of getting naked with strangers. No, this locker room was wide open.
But we made it through the showers and to the baths. And then people started touching me. Stray hands touched my belly and my biceps with grunted comments and laughter I couldn't understand. I didn't even try to stay. I bolted before I had even had time to get all the way in. I was more than a little upset. What was so special about public baths anyway?
In this issue:
What We’re Learning: Bathing in Public
What We’re Reading: Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader
Down the Rabbit Hole: Bathing In It
Let’s get to it.
What We’re Learning:
Bathing in Public
There's a cliche that whenever non-Japanese residents of Japan are asked what they like about Japan, one of the top three answers will always be "onsen." And, like so many cliches, this one has a lot of truth to it. Onsens are a huge part of Japan's tourist economy. Towns and villages plaster their "why don't you come here?" advertisements with softly-lit photos of steam rising from outdoor pools in beautiful natural settings. And, well, the advertisements do not lie.
Tour books often translate "onsen" as "hot spring." They might add words like "traditional" and "natural." And all of that is true. A by-the-book onsen is a public bathhouse in which all the soaking water comes from natural (as in, not man-made) geothermic hot springs. These days, the water is often treated somewhat and while the water will be from a natural spring, that spring might be dozens of miles away and its water fed to the bathhouse via pipes.
But none of that matters because, more than a physical place, onsen are gathering spots for locals and tourists alike. They are the place to take your team after a hard match. A more remote onsen is the perfect place for the company retreat. A really remote one is an even better place for a family getaway. In short, onsen make it easy to foster a sense of community and comradeship for whatever group you're trying to build.
My daughter and I do bathtime together at home sometimes. But, I'm a big guy and the bath tub is...strained...when I sit in it. My daughter wants to play in the water, but with Daddy there, it's a little difficult.
But, this past summer, we were able to go to an onsen together for the first time. We had the full range of baths to ourselves for the better part of an evening and we were able to dip in and out of the warm-room, warm-bath and the cold-outdoor, super-hot-bath with impunity. It was a fantastic bonding time.
Pretty much me, in every bath I’ve ever been in.
At this point, I've been to more onsens than I can remember. I've been in them while the cleaning ladies passed through, making me dive for cover while my friends laughed themselves to pieces. I've been in them during earthquakes, which made us all slightly stupid as we tried to figure out if we needed to evacuate or not. I've been in them by myself after a long day of traveling or sightseeing. I've been in them with friends, family, acquaintances, work-mates, and perfect strangers*. Every single time it has been worth the cost of getting out of my own head and letting go of my own self-consciousness.
I've got a list of onsens I want to go to. A few are nearby, many are hundreds of kilometers away, but they all have something special about them: they are a place where we can let go and get away from everything, sometimes even ourselves.
*Some onsens will bring you this little floating tray that is just big enough to hold a sake decanter and a few glasses. They'll heat the sake up to its normal serving temperature, the idea being that it'll warm your insides up to match your outsides. It is the best way to have sake. Period.
What We’re Reading:
by Bathroom Reader’s Institute
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who read while on the porcelain throne, and those who lie about not reading on the porcelain throne. This book is for both kinds.
Ok, seriously. For people who like to read while they do their business, there is no better series of books than Uncle John’s Bathroom readers. The readers themselves are trivia books, basically, although as they are separated into shorter and longer articles, the books cover a wide-definition of “trivia.” There are historical anecdotes and little-known facts, things you never learned in school and things you forgot, and all manner of oddity in between.
I’m a fan of the themed collections, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Takes a Swing at Baseball and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Universe are two of my favorites, while some of my friends (upon whom I have gift-inflicted many different volumes) prefer the larger collections. Whatever floats your boat, there’s something for everyone.
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Down the Rabbit Hole:
Bathing In It
While Cleopatra bathed in milk and honey, the in-thing is to bathe in red wine. Of course, if you’re traveling in Japan, you might want to try sake instead. But if you don’t like alcohol, there’s always coffee or green tea. Then again, if you’re feeling peckish, perhaps you’d prefer oatmeal? Or, some ramen?
That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.