I feel my most beautiful when I’m clean, fresh out of the bath. ~ Faith Hill
Touring the gardens of Kyoto and sampling a different kind of ramen each day are your main goals for your trip to Japan.
Why should you also make a dip in a public bath a priority?
Especially when more and more Japanese are using public baths less and less?
- For the fun of it. Showers are a treat when you’re pinched for time or so dirty from a day’s toil you want to feel the water knocking the gunk off of you and see it go down, down into the drain. But nothing beats the comfort and luxury of a hot bath, and:
- Millions of Japanese still use public baths. This gives you the opportunity to experience for yourself the hot, soaking bath that is an icon in Japanese daily life. The experience offers, in addition to the physical pleasures we just touched on, life lessons as well.
What are these insights or life lessons?
1. When you’re naked, you’re literally “out there.” When you’re more physically accessible, you’re more socially accessible, too.
THIS IS A GOOD THING.
Naked and Afraid is the name of a reality TV show. But it doesn’t need to be your reality in Japan, even if you’re a novice. Bathing in a single-sex rather than mixed-sex communal bath takes much of the “scary” out of it. This is where friends, family members, and colleagues on business trips bond together.
The act of naked bathing can work similar bonding wonders with strangers. Here we all are or just us two in one big tub, with our different skin colors, hair type with the same parts, in different shapes and sizes.
We’re the same. That’s the comforting part. We’re unknown to each other. That’s the adventure.
2. There is a time and place for everything.
Japanese people are constantly working, moving fast (faster than some New Yorkers) never daring to be late. You see people of all ages eating standing up, downing iced coffees like Jaguars guzzle gasoline. There is no “Slow” or “Off” button when there is work to do. Yet that same woman who flew down the street and apologized for her rudeness as she stepped onto the train in front of you this morning is quiet and smiling now.
She’s taking a bath.
3. Curiosity is the best icebreaker.
You and that stranger in the bath are both curious. You, because you haven’t met many Japanese, least ways, not in your bathtub. And, the stranger is curious because you’ve got naturally red or blonde hair, or look like me. Somehow, she’ll guess you’re not from the neighborhood. The urge to connect, if only through sign language, will overwhelm you both.
Conversation will begin. Are you ready to hold up your end? What questions will you ask to break the ice?
4. Essentialism is a key to contentment.
A Japanese bath is an opportunity to practice it since you are there to relax, unwind. Bathe. N-o-t-h-i-n-g comes into the bath with you.
A client who had traveled to Japan learned all about this during her first communal bath experience there. Stepping into the water with a scarf on her head to protect her “do,” another woman already in the tub made it clear the scarf had to go.
Naked is natural, so to Japanese thinking, taking any sort of clothing into the bath would dirty the water, much like wearing outside shoes into a house dirties that house. So you leave your clothing ~ ALL your clothing ~ behind. With enough practice, you learn how to leave mental clutter behind as well.
To paraphrase what they say about Las Vegas:
What happens outside of the bath, stays outside of the bath.
PREPARE TO TRAVEL
1) There are beaucoup number of articles about popular and unique Japanese communal/public baths on the web. Research and locate at least three in the area you plan to visit, so as to increase your chances of visiting at least one during your time there.
2) Get in shape if you’re not already. If you’re overly self-conscious about your figure, the idea of exposing yourself in front of strangers may discourage you from having what may be the most relaxing experiences of your life. So take care of your bod. (And take comfort in the fact that since NOTHING comes into the bath with you, you can feel confident that photos of “Natural You” will never turn up on Facebook or anywhere else. )
Feature image, 温泉イメージ (Onsen Image) by Yusei.