by Peter Nelson
Along with many other new customs to learn in Japan, the way they bathe in the exotic Orient is very different from what Westerners are used to. The big community bath centres are popular gathering places, a spot for good exercise, entertainment for all ages — and you also get clean! Baths in the big towns are the size of swimming pools. Since you bathe naked, there are separate pools for each sex, but with a large swinging door connecting them, so the kids can dart back and forth from one pool to the other. And you have to be clean before you bathe. You’re given a small basin, some soap, and a handcloth, and you scrub yourself down before you jump into the pool.
Hostels and ryokans have a more modest version of these communal pools — sometimes big enough for 6 to 8 people, sometimes just for 1 or 2, but they’re just as much fun. And boy, do you ever feel clean afterwards! After feeling rather grubby in most of Southeast Asia, where we were lucky to get a real bath once a week, a dip in these hot little tubs was the highlight of our evening.
Sometimes the tub was heated with electric coils, sometimes with a propane burner, but one tub we climbed into — a bit reluctantly, I might add — was steaming merrily away over a blazing wood fire. I didn’t mind that so much. That big iron pot looked suspiciously like a cooler (a huge pot for scalding pigs). I didn’t mind that so much. But that glass container the hostess said was holding scented bath pellets sure looked an awful lot like a salt shaker!
And of course, you can’t control the temperature of the water over a wood fire as carefully as the ones heated by other methods. This baby was H-O-T! All Japanese baths are about 6 degrees Centigrade above body temperature, but you soon get used to that. This one was so hot that moving at all was uncomfortable. The water was actually cooled by its contact with your skin, but when you moved, your skin contacted the hotter stuff. Parboiled city!
In one hostel, way up on the northern coast of Hokkaido, we were the only visitors, except for an older farming couple. The walls of the small bathing room were faced with bamboo, and their color made the light soft and golden. We weren’t particularly shy, and the farmers didn’t seem to be either, so we just stripped off and hopped into the tub with them. They didn’t speak a word of English, and we had about 6 Japanese words at our command, so talking was out. But that didn’t slow us down any. Using elaborate hand gestures, we chatted away for an hour or more. We told them how much we loved their country, asked them where they lived, what they grew on their farm — it’s amazing how well you can communicate without using words. We had the most wonderful evening with that couple.