Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Japanese Public Bath; Quite Possibly the Most Awkward Experience of My Life

I went to my first Japanese public bath yesterday. It was quite possibly the most awkward experience of my life! I don't mean to say that Japanese public bathers are bizarre but the experience was very bizarre for me!

I entered the front door to the bath house and took off my shoes and left them at the entrance with the other shoes that were there. (Luckily I entered the correct door as the only way to go from that entrance was into the women's dressing area!) There was a series of lockers with large wooden keys in them. None of the other shoe owners were using a locker so I decided not to use one either since all I had with me was a small purse and the clothes on my body.

I then entered the the door with the red woman emblem on it beside the lockers. As soon as I opened the door I was accosted by the sight of several naked men. I was indeed in the women's dressing area but there was a 3 foot gap where there was no wall near the front desk. The men who entered on the other side could surely see into this much of the changing area of the women's side! The clerk (an old man) had his back toward me and said nothing so I just continued into the changing area assuming I would pay as I left.

I began to undress as I looked around stealth-fully to see what the other women were doing so that I would be able to emulate them. I placed my clothing and my purse in an empty basket which was on a shelf. It wasn't until I was entirely naked that I realized that I had no idea where to obtain soap, shampoo, or a towel (I had learned from others that these items would be available at the bath sight). I knew that I was supposed to shower thoroughly before entering the tubs so I dared not proceed further without these cleaning items. So I approached a lady who was dressing on a couch and said "sumimasen (excuse me)" and proceeded to deliberately gesture and ask with very broken Japanese if she could help me find soap and shampoo. She then walked up to the front desk and spoke with the clerk for a minute or so. She then gestured for me to approach the desk (remember, I am naked at this time)!

I then apprehensively got near the desk hiding my body behind a tiny curtain the size of a pillow case which barely covered my chest and abdomen. I peeked my head around the side of the curtain and said "konbanwa (good evening)" and asked for some soap. The gentle man handed me a tiny bar of soap, a small bottle of shampoo, and a very little towel. I asked how much yen and he counted on his fingers 5. I then scooted over to my purse and pulled out 500 yen and walked back over to the clerk and gave him the money. I then hurried into the shower area.

The shower heads were 2 feet off the ground so I showered while sitting and kneeling. I scrubbed myself down for 5 minutes using the soap and the tiny towel that the clerk had given me. I was fascinated by how long the other women took to shower. (One woman showered, scrubbing herself over and over again, for the entire 40 minutes I was there!) I then washed my hair thoroughly. When I was done there was a pile of a soap package, bobby pins (which I forgot to remove prior to entering the area), a slippery/soggy bar of soap, a tiny bottle, and a wet towel sitting on the small ledge at the shower. I looked around for a trash can and saw none in the entire women's side of the bath house. I must have seemed confused because a kind old lady walked over and handed me a medium sized yellow bowl. I placed the stuff in it and walked it over with me to the first hot tub.

I soaked for 15 minutes or so in the hottest water I have ever been immersed in while discretely observing the other women, taking mental notes as to how to act in such a place. All at once I felt a panic as it occurred to me that I had not towel with which to dry off! I looked around and didn't see any large towels. I suppose the other women brought theirs from home and they were waiting for them in the baskets that they put their clothing in. I arrived at the bright idea of drying off in the sauna.
I stepped out of the tub (beet red and dizzy) and entered the sauna. I sat down on the felt covered bench and continued to drip for 3 minutes or so. I was sweating and my hair was dripping water excessively. It was no use. I then thought that I could dry off my tiny towel in the sauna so I laid it out on the bench and waited for another few minutes but I was so uncomfortably hot that I just had to exit the sauna.

I rinsed off the bowl and set it aside, holding the pile of trash in my hand. I walked through the dressing area sopping wet and went directly to the toilet room. I peed into the squatter (did I mention that I had to pee pretty badly from the instant I began to shower?) and then dabbed myself dry with toilet paper. I used the tiny feminine hygiene receptacle to dispose of the soap and other items (minus the towel) which had previously been in the yellow bowl.

I exited the toilet room and dressed my damp body. I asked a woman who seemed to be working there where I should place my towel. She took it from me and set it on a shelf. I thanked her and left the bath house, still beet red.

To find out more about public baths in Japan visit http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2074.html

1 comment:

  1. I'm laughing pretty hard. Since you weren't born with the bathhouse gene that the Japanese seem to have it can be a little intimidating. It's a little weird going to the onsen, even if you have a guide. Just roll with it until you figure it out. After a couple of times at the onsen you'll be a pro and the experience will be one of the most memorable of the trip. Just remember to take a towel...