Going Native in Japan: dipping into the bathing culture

The Tokyo Olympics has made me reflect on the three years I lived in Japan, as an English teacher some twenty years ago.

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One of the most popular posts on My Mashed Up Life is Naked in Japan which I wrote about my experience of social nudity in Japan. It was more of a how-to guide, really, to explain what the process of visiting a Japanese bathhouse is like.

I wrote it four years ago so perhaps it’s time for a follow-up.

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Going to the bathhouse is all about relaxation. It is meant to be a pleasurable, de-stressing well-being experience: time to chill-out with your mates, family or colleagues.

Even thinking about it makes me miss it enormously and wish I could go there right now. (It has been almost twenty years since I was last in Japan but here I am still thinking about how wonderful the public baths were, so that shows you the long-lasting impression they had on me).

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It was the one place in Japan where I felt like I belonged; naked people are the most equal people, after all. Yes, I was still a white man among Japanese men, but when we’re naked we’re all the same. My Japanese colleagues and friends appreciated the effort I was making to dip into their culture (literally dipping in, in this case) and it greatly improved my relationships with them.

I can’t emphasize enough how much of a social experience the public baths in Japan are, and how clean and relaxed I felt after visiting.

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For those of you that don’t know, you strip naked in the locker room, then shower using soaps and shampoo. Once you’re clean you can can go into the different baths; some are very hot, some are scented, some are cold, some are warm, some are akin to a jacuzzi, some are the size of a room, some are only big enough for a couple of people at a time. All are amazing. Some bath houses even have steam rooms.

However, it wasn’t always as calming and relaxing as it sounds. There were awkward moments; mostly when I bumped into people that I was not expecting to see there.

Image: dezeen.com

Once I was sitting in a jacuzzi-type bath, enjoying the sensation and totally relaxed. But then the principal from my school suddenly appeared and sat down beside me. Imagine having a bath with your boss; this was my situation.

I attempted some formal small talk (in Japanese, of course) and was expecting him to reply in a stilted way. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when he smiled and chatted away as if we were old buddies. I mean, the language remained formal (he was still my boss, after all, and in Japan hierarchy is everything) but any awkwardness I initially felt soon melted away.

Image: dezeen.com

That was, however, until it was time for me to get out of the bath. I had been in there quite a while by now and was starting to overheat. The only way out was to stand up, turn away from my boss and climb the steps.

I did a respectful seated bow, turned my back to him and climbed out. In the process my naked butt was just inches away from his face.

Awkward.

After that experience of bathing with my boss my relationship with him at work greatly improved; no longer was he a remote senior figure to be revered and somewhat feared, but he became someone I could talk to more freely. I felt like he somehow respected me more for embracing the Japanese way of life, and I became a more accepted member of the school teaching staff.

If you’re curious, here’s a video that explains how to visit a Japanese bathhouse (warning: it does contain male nudity).

How to Onsen from Leslie Marsh on Vimeo.

There’s also this video (which does not contain nudity) about one guy’s experience of visiting a Japanese bath house. He talks about the vulnerability of being naked but also of the positive feelings from that experience: the camaraderie and equality of it all, which is very much in line with how I felt about it.

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