It’s always interesting for me to see which of our posts get more traction and which barely a trickle of visitors. I often find it to be completely unpredictable when some of my own favorite posts fly under the radar (example 1, 2, 3) while uninspired 20-minute write-ups are getting constant traffic. One post in particular sticks out in all Google Analytics reports, cheekily titled “Southeast Asia – No Happy Endings”, like the one that gets the most traffic from search engine results. I thought it would be cute to discuss my love of massages. Instead, this page serves to frustrate hundreds of perverts each month who google “Asian massage happy ending” and end up at my “no happy endings” pun title. Similarly, if you ended up on this page because you googled “naked bath Japanese girls”, I will take this time to formally apologize and bid you farewell. This post will be about the peculiar joys of communal bathing in Japan and will feature absolutely no nudity or questionable practices of any kind.
OK, now that all the perverts are gone, here are all the “dirty” details about Japanese bathhouses. Wow, another great pun. Anyway, there are two types of bathhouses in Japan – onsen and sento. You are going to be naked in a steamy tub with strangers in both, but sento’s water is heated from the town’s water supply, while onsens are built on top of natural hot springs which are at least 77°F at the source and have high mineral content. We went to both types and there is little difference in the level of embarrassment and awkwardness, but the natural spring water of an onsen is smellier, bubblier, and great for muscle relaxation, if not mental relaxation. I spent the whole time nervously trying to figure out the bathhouse etiquette. It is OK to look at someone while you are both naked? How can I see where I am going if I am trying to avoid looking at people? Do I try to cover myself with the tiniest towel in existence (smaller than a regular face towel in the US) or just dismiss all attempts at modesty? The fact that I was surrounded by mostly Japanese women in every bathhouse added to my anxiety – I stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of mostly uniformly shaped bodies. I felt too tall, too fat, too heavy on thighs and chest, too visible.
The locals, on the other hand, seemed very comfortable. Apparently, many Japanese find public baths to have great social importance, the theory being that physical proximity brings emotional intimacy, a so-called “skinship”. Many residents also live in smaller older houses without private baths and sento is the only option to get clean. This was the case for us in Takayama, a lovely town in the Japanese Alps, where the Airbnb we rented did not even have a tiny shower stall but came with two tickets to a nearby communal bathhouse. We were happy with the arrangement as we’d been looking forward to visiting a sento. It turned out to be housed in a small building, with a cashier at the front doors checking tickets. One door led to the women’s section and the other to the men’s, but once inside, it turned out that both doors led to the same room with a tall barrier separating the sexes. It was very strange to be in a room full of naked women, while clearly hearing men talking and grunting and scrubbing themselves mere feet away. The whole setup was quite utilitarian, with a few wooden benches in the changing room area, some faucets lined up on the wall to diligently scrub and wash yourself before soaking in a single large bath in the middle of the room. Walking out, I felt like I was in a brand-new body – squeaky clean, freshly steamed, my thoughts clear, and muscles fully relaxed. We discussed our experiences on the walk home, even though we could have easily held that same conversation in real-time over the gender-separating barrier in the sento.
An onsen we visited in Tokyo, on the other hand, was quite a grand affair. Housed in a gorgeous spacious skyscraper, it was a strange marriage of an amusement park and an upscale spa. The whole idea of a skyscraper being built on top of a natural hot water spring was already confusing enough when I also discovered an entire rollercoaster running right next to the building. This bathhouse, as many in Japan, also came with a dealbreaker of a rule for many American Millennials – absolutely no one with any tattoos anywhere allowed in. You have a tattoo? You are going home dirty. We had to sign a release at the reception that if we were found to have even the smallest most unoffensive tattoo anywhere on our bodies, we forfeit the considerable entrance price and will be promptly removed from the premises. The reason for this strange rule is that historically only members of Yakuza, an illegal mafia organization, and “anti-social” anarchists tattooed their bodies, while upstanding moral citizens did not. Thankfully, I had talked Victor out of tattooing the cost of his law school education on his bicep years earlier, and we were clear to go in.
We were each given a choice of pajamas: various colors of soft t-shirts and shorts for men, same for women but with an addition of a long nightgown option. At this point, we agreed to meet in the common area in exactly one hour, after showering and trying out the onsen’s various gender-separated pools and tubs. Turned out one hour was not exactly enough to sample every rock bath, stone oven bath, pool with super jets, saunas, and steam baths. I decided to limit myself to ten minutes in every pool, even in the most relaxing sitting spa with jets massaging my back and legs, in colder baths and hottest whirlpools, in the sauna which filters its steam through germanium stones, and in a “lazy river” shaped pool in a surprising cold room.
I finally dragged myself out an hour and a half later, rinsed off, and put on my pajamas. I met Victor in the appropriately named “Relaxation lounge”, relaxing in a large leather la-z-boy chair by the window. Below us, Tokyo was aglow with lights. We compared our experiences, tried to figure out if male and female areas had exactly the same offerings and who liked what more. I enjoyed the super jets pool while Victor preferred the hot sauna.
“Did you go into the cold room?” I asked.
“The cold room?”
“Yeah, there is one room where you go in and they have AC cranked up and it’s super cold. It was nice after a hot sauna.”
“Are you talking about the open-air area? The deck? Where there was no roof?”
I stared at him incomprehensibly. After shedding my pajamas in the women’s locker room and heading back into the pool area, I walked into the “cold room” and lifted my head. I was looking directly into the starry sky. How I didn’t notice that this wasn’t an over-air-conditioned room, but an open-air deck is beyond me. I was so concentrated on sampling every pool, bath, and sauna that I didn’t even bother looking up. I got back into the pool, and for the first time that evening blocked all thoughts out of my head – my worries about onsen etiquette, my rush to test out every single amenity in the spa zone, my awkwardness in being completely naked with hundreds of naked strangers, whose bodies were shaped far different than my own. I leaned my head back against a rock, exhaled slowly and stared into the deep dark sky. My body floated in the carbonated spring water, weightless, shapeless, finally relaxed.
Looking back now, my only wish for Japanese bathhouses was the same as for Japanese food – I wanted more. I wanted to go enough times to wash away all of my anxiety over cultural differences and body issues, shed my embarrassment like dead skin and use my time to cleanse, relax, to be at peace with my thoughts. But most of all, I wanted to experience “skinship”, a sense of community and silent affinity with these women who shared their water, steam, and air with me.