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

  1. Jill

    Is it odd that I spent part of Sacred Hour learning how Jocelyn took a bath in public? However, staying connected with my dear friend is truly sacred to me.

    I could picture your facial expression as you moved through this new experience (I made a point NOT to picture anything else!). But I did think about the fact that I would want to be in much better shape before considering a trip to Japan. Yes, our bodies are beautiful regardless of the shape or size, but I would like to take up slightly less space in a public bath.

    Thanks for sharing your story. What an interesting, amazing experience you’re having!

  2. Erika

    Hear, hear Jill. I too would want to take up less space in a public bath!!!! I can’t wait to hear about Kyoto and Seol. Jocelyn, keep soaking it all in, no pun intended. We love you!
    Love, Mom♥

  3. Dani

    So JRussy, it’s taken me this long to finally find your blog. But I am so glad that Jill gave me the url just in time for this post. I can totally picture this entire story (except the naked part, like Jill). I’m glad you’re having such a wonderful time and learning so much. I can’t wait to read about what you do next!

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