I’m doing that crazy I-don’t-know-if-I-should-bow-or-shake-hands thing when being introduced to a Japanese man, so we end up doing both. My American friend is introducing us after bumping into him in the changing room at a public bath. The Japanese man has just arrived, so he’s fully clothed, but I am completely naked, doing the handshake / bowing thing, and nothing about this situation feels weird at all.
You see, living in Japan for three years changed my attitude to nudity.
I mean, I had been skinny dipping in the river a few times with my best mate, but other than that, I had shied away from too much public exposure. Japan, though, taught me that nudity brings people together.
Living in Japan
I lived in a small rural community, where I worked as a teacher, and I was the only Caucasian foreigner. Whatever I did, wherever I went, it was impossible to blend in.
If I went for a walk along the beach with a female friend, for example, I would later hear rumours that I had been seen on a date with my girlfriend.
When I shopped in the supermarket, people would look in my basket to see what I was buying. Even if I drove to the next city to visit a department store, news of it would somehow spread around the school.
I knew these people were not being malicious; they were just curious about this white man that was living in their town, but I began to crave anonymity.
In the cold, snowy winter months I sought out public baths, called sento, as places to relax and warm myself up.
These bathhouses are everywhere in Japan; each neighbourhood has one, and they vary enormously.
Some are older, more traditional types, with perhaps one hot bath made of wood in a relatively small communal area, whereas others are these vast, modern spa-like havens, with a plethora of different waters to bathe in.
Going to the sento is a social event; Japanese people go there with friends or family or colleagues. There is nothing strange about taking a bath with your boss, your parent, or your neighbour.
In many ways it is like going to the pub; you go to hang out, enjoy each other’s company, to talk, to relax.
Here’s how a sento works; after paying at the front desk, you walk through either the male or female entrance, which leads you into the appropriate changing room. Here, you undress and put your clothes in a locker or a basket. When you are naked, you can enter the actual bathing area.
There you’ll find a row of showers on the wall, only they are very low down; you don’t stand under them, you sit down on a stool.
Usually, there is body wash and shampoo provided, to use to thoroughly clean yourself with. After washing, make sure you rinse all the soap off your body. The showers are to get you completely clean before you enter the bath; the bath, you see, is for relaxing in, not for washing in.
Often, there will be baths of different temperatures, including a cold one, to plunge into to cool down. The more modern ones also have saunas and cold rooms (like a sauna, only with really cold air conditioning).
I think the reason why I fell in love with Japanese bathhouses is that it was the one place I could go where I didn’t feel different.
I know that might sound strange, because, after all, here I was, still a white man in a mono-cultural Asian country, surrounded by Japanese people, and I was naked, so I should have felt even more on display than usual, but I didn’t.
I realised that once we are stripped down we are all the same; a naked man is a naked man regardless of his race or ethnicity or the language he speaks. I finally felt like I belonged.
You can read more about the 3 years I spent in Japan here.