It’s a Whole New World and I’m Just Here to Experience It [My first experience using a Japanese public bath]

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[I should just warn people that this post will be awkward. I apologize. For those who know me well (close friends, family), it shouldn’t be too bad. For those who have never met me, I don’t care. For those who are stuck in that awkward in-between, I’m sorry. You’re about to find out a lot more about me than you ever wished.]

I just returned from a week long trip that consisted of touring Hiroshima (which many will know as the city that suffered from the first atomic bomb used against humanity) and Kyoto, the old capital of Japan.

First was Hiroshima, which I was lucky enough to experience with one of my personal tutors and her close friend, whose hometown is rural Hiroshima.

We traveled via popular shinkasen, or bullet train.

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I’ll just say this: you may think walking to the bathroom in a plane that is experiencing some turbulence is difficult. You may bitch and moan about it as you fumble your way to the toilet door. However my friends, you have not experienced true difficulty until you try to walk to the bathroom on a shinkansen going about 200 miles an hour. Every turn is like a taking a huge lunge and before you know it, you’re almost face first in some poor sap’s bento box sitting in the seat next to you.

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I had no idea what I was getting into.

You may be thinking that I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. You’re wrong. I loved it. The shinkansen is beyond efficient. We were at stations for no longer than 7 minutes before barreling our way down the tracks towards our next destination. The staff is friendly (always bowing before exiting the car). The leg room is fit for a king. They even have an electronic sign that, when not listing off the next stop, gives you the world news.

Pretty darn cool, right?

It took about 4 and half hours to get from Tokyo to Hiroshima. We left at 1:00pm and arrived close to 5:00pm. We promptly met up with my tutors friend (Saeno) and boarded a bus bound for her hometown.

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[Rural Hiroshima is beautiful]

When we were picked up by Saeno’s father it was nearly dark out. We drove for about 15 minutes, along the way being told that we were meeting the rest of the family at a local restaurant.

I thought I understood everything for the most part. Until the heard the word bath (お風呂、ofuro) and became a little confused. I pushed it in the back of my head, assuming that because of my elementary Japanese, I just misunderstood the conversation.

We had some dinner, at a small family restaurant connected to what I thought at first was a hotel, but turned out to be–

I’ll save that discovery for later.

I managed to yet again, make a fool of myself with my haphazard Japanese while we conversed at dinner, probably turning 50 shades of red. Not off to the best start in my opinion.

The rest became a blur.

I was whisked away to the “hotel” part of the building, given a shoe locker, towels and a key to what seemed to be a locker.

My tutor and I rolled our baggage down a hallway and into a locker room. I looked at my key, number 67. I searched for my locker, still not really knowing what was going on. Until I took a look around.

“Hm, that person isn’t wearing any clothes. I take it that this is a public bath.”

You think Jocelyn?!

Here’s the deal with public baths. A long time ago, many Japanese homes did not have their own bath, so people had to travel to a public one in order to bathe. That’s since changed, almost all homes have their own shower/bathing area, but public baths still remain popular methods of bathing.

I never really understood why until I actually experienced one.

There’s a pretty strict set of rules you have to follow if you want to take a bath in a public bathing house in Japan. While no two public baths are the same (some consist of day-spas, hotels, fitness centers, etc.), you still can’t just waltz in and pretend to chill in the big jacuzzi like you would in America.

Make sure you don’t walk into the wrong bath. That’s awkward.

Get to your locker (you receive a key when you pay) and strip. Down to nothing. No, you can’t wear your towel around you to get into the bath. You’re going to have to be naked. Sure, cover yourself with your tiny towel (which is going to be used to wash yourself, not to dry yourself) if you must, but just face that fact that you’re going to be naked. In front of others.

This makes the first day of gym class in junior high seem like nothing right?

Bring your shampoo, soap, face wash, razor and even toothbrush with you, along with your tiny towel. Most public baths have shampoo and soap (often times, really nice ones!) available in the actual bath. Before entering, make sure you stop at the sink and wash away any make-up.

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Often times, around the actual bath, there is a set of showers with mirrors, low to the ground. In the corner will be stools and bowls. Grab a stool and a bowl and mosey on over to a shower head. Sit down on the stool, set down your bathing supplies and get ready to scrub.

You really want to be clean before entering the bath. After being told what to do and some observation (WHICH IS NOT CONSIDERED PERVERTED OKAY), it’s common to shampoo first and then drench your towel with water and soap before actually scrubbing your skin.

I’ve been told that in some cases, it’s recommended that you scrub for 30 minutes. We didn’t do that. I don’t know if that’s a rule for fancier places (like onsen, in which the bath is heated by actual hot springs) or just a personal preference.

After you’re clean (and rinsed off- this is important), make sure to tie up your hair (if it’s long enough) and enter the bath.

It’s going to be hot.

The bath we went to had jets in it, allowing patrons to receive a bit of a water massage. While it was extremely hot at first, it felt extremely good.

After taking trains for nearly 6 hours to get to Hiroshima, this was beyond amazing. Now I began to understand why these places are so popular.

The entire time, I wasn’t sure when to strike up a conversation with my tutor. Sure, she told me what to do, but until we entered the bath, that was about it. When we finally settled, we started talking as if we were at a café, as if we were outside of class, as if we were clothed.

Not once did we talk about each other’s bodies. Oh, you’re breasts are cute~ Or, I like your figure!

Nor did we discuss anyone else’s physique while we relaxed in the bath. We didn’t talk about the awkwardness. We didn’t discuss about how I felt. Or why most Americans really don’t like the idea of public bathing.

For me, this was the first time being naked in front of people that were not my family (sorry I had to share that), but we didn’t converse about that matter. We were just a couple of friends taking a bath together.

After awhile, another woman in the bath pointed out an outdoor bath to us, inviting us to go out and try it. Not awkward at all, it was very kind of her to do that.

Outdoor baths are nice, since the air is cool and the water is warm. If you really want to enjoy the warmth, you jump out and sit at the provided bench for a few minutes before jumping back in.

Many baths have saunas, which are nothing like the one’s I’ve experienced in America. This was pretty small, just enough for two people. You don’t bring anything in with you. Just you in your birthday suit in a woody-smelling box, sweating it up.

Of course, I’m too much a baby to stay in longer enough to break a sweat. Those suckers are hot.

When you’re finally done, sometimes you rinse off before going back to the locker room and drying off (while a larger towel this time). Hair dryers are often provided.

Before I knew it, we were leaving the bath as quickly as we entered.

It was like the first time after you get a vaccination and you’re so proud that you survived. It’s like receiving a badge of honor. I just experienced a Japanese public bath! 

However, I find the idea of public bathing to be important. The second time I visited the bath (before I left Hiroshima), I saw some children there as well, with their mothers. I remember being their age and terrified of the idea of even taking off my gym shirt in front of others.

That’s not the case here.

Public bathing has taught people that we are human, this is who we are. Our bodies may be different shapes, sizes, colors and whatever else you can think of. However, we’re all the same. We’re human. We need to bathe. We deserve to relax in a warm bath, even in front of others. It’s our right.

I remember reading an excellent book Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window. The book itself is about the author’s (Tetsuko Kuroyanagi) experience at her grade school during WWII. The headmaster was a unique one at that, often times having children learn life lesson through methods found elsewhere than books and teaching materials.

One thing that the headmaster made sure that all of his pupils understood was that everyone is the same and deserves to be treated as so. He would have the students go for swims in the school pool naked, to emphasize this idea.

You see that in America and you can bet your bottom dollar that that headmaster would be canned.

However, there’s an important to be learned.

We are often taught to be ashamed of our bodies, of a part of our life that does so much for us. We are expected to be embarrassed when we have to undress in front of other. We assume that others are judging us.

This is wrong.

And it needs to change.

Maybe, sometime down the road, I’ll open up a Japanese-style public bath. In hopes that people will not only realize how comfortable those things make you feel, but to teach patrons that there is nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing to hide.

What does that layer of clothing really do anyways?

My last day in Hiroshima was hard, I went to see the 原爆ドーム「Genbaku Dome」and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park/Museum. My thoughts on that experience will be saved for a later post, but to sum it up, that was a roller coaster of emotions.

To end it with a bath, even if it meant having it in front of others, was one of the best things in the world.

The public bath wasn’t too far from Saeno’s house, so when we were done, my tutor and I walked back.

Being in rural Hiroshima and being a clear night, you could see every star in the sky.

The smell of freshly shampooed hair mixed with the water sprayed on the rice fields. It was perfection.

Much love always,

J

I also had to (awkwardly) learn how to use these types of toilets:

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BAM. Study abroad experience at it’s best.

Photos of the bath and toilet can be found here and here.

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A time to celebrate new beginnings [a gif compilation of my life the past 2 weeks]

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Like they always say, when one door closes, another one opens.

The other day, myself and 4 other fabulous students completed our 7 week intensive language course.

Tears may or may have not been shed by the others, but, speaking for myself, they often times came down like a never-ending waterfall.

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The beginning part of this Japanese studies program concluded with us giving a 5 minute speech about our impression of Tsuru, Tokyo, Japan, everything.

This would’ve been difficult to write in English, much less Japanese.

I was a little worried that I would mix up my sentences and end of saying something completely out in left field.

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But that didn’t happen. Everyone did wonderful. Whether it was mentioning how to they first became interested in studying abroad in Japan or how their first trip to Tokyo went, the speeches were well written and even better when presented. Until the very hours before presenting, we made it clear to each other that we had each other’s back.

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Our nervous level was felt by everyone the 2 weeks leading up to the speech. Maybe that’s why they let us use our scripts when we presented.

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[Pretty much me the moment I stepped off the podium]

Regardless, it’s over. The part of the program that everyone said would make us cry like children- has just been completed.

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So happy I could do a jig.

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Or anything for that matter.

Like I referenced in an early blog post, I feel like I’ve learned a lot from these 7 weeks. A lot of Japanese of course, however, just a lot about…

Life.

Like, accepting the fact that you’re going to fail every once in awhile. Learning to just spit it out instead of staying silent in fear of being wrong. Rolling with the punches that come along as you embark on a new journey (educational or otherwise).

Sometimes life comes at you face first.

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That’s how it was when I first came here. Japanese, everywhere, all the time. Customs that you read about dozens of times in books, being practiced everyday and you’re expected to follow them.

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You just want to have a panic attack alone in your apartment.

But sometimes you just have to,

Smile!

And say,

I got this

Even when you feel like you don’t.

I remember someone telling (mom, was it you?!) that it’s better to walk into a difficult situation with a positive attitude. That way, no matter what, it’ll be even just a little bit better than if you went in as Debbie Downer.

What can I say. Life’s a bitch sometimes.

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But when you keep fighting, it’s totally worth it.

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The day of our final speech was also the graduation day for hundreds of Tsuru University students; a few of them I consider to be close friends.

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It was beyond lively, nothing like I’ve ever seen in the United States. Student team and club members (who weren’t graduating) all decked out in their team/club uniforms and waiting outside of the auditorium. They made congratulatory signs and had champagne at the ready. When their graduating members finally made their way out, they threw them up in the air, regardless of whether or not their were wearing fancy kimono-like outfits, called hakama.

Why was it so lively? Maybe because this is the last chance for many of these individuals to really live it up before they enter the ever-exhuating, over-working life (there’s even a term in the dictionary that stems from this work culture, karoshiliterally working yourself to death) that comes with having a Japanese job?

Not entirely sure.

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I was perhaps too preoccupied with the thought that my friends who were graduating that day are friends that I met as early as my freshman year of college. Most came as ESL students with the intention to polish up their English.

But created some of the best friendships I could ever hope for in this life.

Many of them are the reason why I chose to study Japanese, to come to Japan.

I’ve traveled the country with some of these people. Presented projects with them. Had 1am heart-to-heart conversations with most.

And now they’re graduating!

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Onto the real world, with real-people jobs.

It was fitting that this ceremony took place after our final speeches. It reminded me that, when times are tough and you just want to give up…

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You have happy moments like this, when you remember why everything is so worth fighting for.

Spring break is now beginning and I’m off-

Hiroshima, Kyoto and then…

Can you guess? 😉

Look out for pictures and blog posts to find out where in the world I’ll be next.

Until then,

Much love always,

J

All of the gifs in the first half of the blog are not mine and were found via tumblr. Unfortunately, many of them were saved onto my computer a long time ago or were sent to me by a friend. So if you happen to see a gif that you created and you want credit for, please let me know!

Pictures, however, are taken by friends and yours truly.

When the snow falls, you grab the shovel [Remembering 3.11]

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I should probably begin this with a large apology for not posting for an entire month.

I made a brief post about the snow storm in Japan on my Tumblr, but in a nutshell, it was pretty bad. Classes were canceled for an entire week and most of the local businesses were closed down due to the very fact that most people could barely open their doors due to the heavy amount of snow.

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Those details will be mentioned later.

There’s a more important significance to this post.

It’s the evening before 3.11:

東北地方太平洋沖地震,

2011 Touhoku Earthquake and Tsunami,

Great East Japan Earthquake.

Whatever you want to call it, it was a complete and utter disaster. It was literally felt around the world.

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At 2:46pm, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 hit Japan, about 230 miles northwest of Tokyo. While the earthquake was recorded as the 4th largest in Japanese history, most of the damage was done by the nearly 30 ft. waves that crashed into the shores of the Japanese northwest prefectures. For those knowledgable on the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, it was the tsunami that caused the real damage.

As of last month, 15,884 people are confirmed to be dead and there are still volunteers searching for their loved ones.

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Hope never gives up.

Tomorrow Japan will be observing a moment of silence at 2:46pm and some prefectures will be hosting vigils to remember those lost.

I’ve spent the last few days occasionally reading articles relating to the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami. Mostly about protests that have been occurring throughout the country to keep nuclear power plants in Japan at a minimum. Politicians throughout the country (including Prime Minister Abe) have considered or even pushed for the reopening and creation of nuclear power plants in Japan.

Being a visitor of Japan, I don’t know where I exactly stand on the presence of nuclear power in Japan and I feel like my opinion might not be appropriate. However, as a visitor, I have been told many a time to try my best to conserve energy. Whether it’s turing off the heater before leaving or keeping as many lights off in the apartment as possible; it’s to conserve the energy and prove to government officials that the need for nuclear power plants is obsolete.

I think those well-articulated with Japanese affairs have heard this phrase before: A part of the Japanese lifestyle is to live a life of community.

Traphagan of the University of Texas at Austin agrees:

“Japan is a very community-oriented society,”

John Traphagan (2011)

You see it all the time. Most of our host families live with their extended family. The kids I see walking to school every morning wait for each other at predetermined stops along the street until they can all walk together.

When a disaster strikes in Japan, people get busy.

To this very day, now exactly 3 years later, volunteers are still coming from near and far to the 3.11 disaster area (and other prefectures hosting displaced persons) and doing what they can with what they have. Whether it is assist those who are still homeless or help rebuild what was almost entirely swallowed by the ocean, they come with their hands ready.

Some say that this strive for community hasn’t always been the Japanese ideal. Shoutarou Yachi, former Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan believes that it is due mostly to the expansion of media and Internet access:

“People tended to think in terms of building more fulfilling lives for themselves rather than considering the impact of their actions on society as a whole. The influence of the Internet and mobile phones may have exacerbated this tendency.”

Yachi Shoutarou (2011)

After 3.11, he believed that changed; from the rural towns in northwest Japan, to the big cities southward:

The vectors that previously pointed inward have started to turn toward the outside world and society at large. Terms like danketsu (solidarity) and kessoku (cohesiveness), which had been fading from use, have begun to sound fresh again, and the word kizuna (bonds) is back in vogue”

Yachi Shoutarou (2011)

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Shoutarou sees this especially with the Japanese youth, who probably were the most inward of them all prior to 3.11.

This Japanese ideal of community probably helped make the 3.11 post-diaster efforts more manageable and the coping doable.

“In Japan, it is all about the collective, what you do as a group… in an emergency, that works better.”

Keiji Asakura (2011)

This ideal of community has been ingrained into some of the Japanese communities prior to the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami.

Traphagan has found that many Japanese towns have formal organizations that help assess and solve issues and even provide leadership when times get tough.

He also concluded that because of the strong sense of family ties held in Japanese families, the made the grieving experienced after the disaster a little bit easier:

” …there are parts of Japan where generations live together and the concept of family extends to relations that most Americans would consider distant. This family structure can offer a network of support in times of disaster.”

John Traphagan (2011)

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However, nothing in the entire world, not even a millennium of well-practiced cultural values, can prepare one for what happened March 11, 2011.

Like I said before, about a month ago, most of Japan got hit with a hefty snow storm, bringing about 35 inches of snow to Yamanashi Prefecture in less than 24 hours. I’ve lived in the Midwest my entire life and go to school in Green Bay, WI and not even the snowy weather I’ve experienced there would’ve prepared me for this.

While Yamanashi Prefecture is not new to snow, it was taken aback by the amount that was dropped in February. Local townships were advising people to stay indoors and not attempt to drive. Those who did found themselves stuck on the roads and many chose to abandon their cars until they could be dug out of the snow a week later.

City halls became safe zones for those who lost power, needed food/water or required medical attention. Every few hours, announcements were read on the Tsuru-shi PA system, letting people know where they could go if they needed help.

And most likely asking those of able-body to help.

My friends and I trekked out to the store the day after the snow drop and saw an apocalyptic type of city. It was erringly quiet, despite the numerous amounts of people trying to shovel cars out of the street. Now and then a helicopter flew by.

We were inspired by what we saw and returned home to help our neighbors shovel the side street leading to their houses/our apartments. With some simple Japanese and borrowed shovels, we shoveled until dark with the expectation to do it again the next day. However, the weather became nice enough to the point where some of the snow began to melt.

Our university and many of the local schools were closed due to the snow, so students got busy with their after-school club groups and shoveled all day until it was too dark to see the snow. Business owners forewent the option of opening their doors and instead helped their neighbors out of the snow. Local businesses were opening up their bathrooms for the volunteers to use.

Everyone wanted to make sure everyone was okay.

In no way am I comparing this snow storm to the 3.11 disaster. 

I only wish to mention the fact that I was able to experience a fraction of this Japanese ideal of community I have heard so much about.

I really don’t have a good way of ending this. Tomorrow is going to be rough for many people. My thoughts and support go out to everyone. Tonight. Tomorrow. And every day after.

Those reading from St. Norbert College will understand when I say this,

Japan, I have been inspired by your own, special form of communio.

Whenever I can, from now on, I will get my hands dirty for the sake of the community.

がんばれ、日本!

Much love,

J

Credit for the information can be found at:

CNN, Aljazeera, JapanEcho, Chron, The Japan Times

Credit for the photos (with the exception of the first one) can be found (in order from 2nd to last);

here, here, here, here