by Joan Schbeiner Mann
“Save water. Shower with a friend.”
The current button fad picked up momentum when some bright thing dreamed up this slogan.
But in Japan it’s been the rule for centuries.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon whether or not you like washing with members of the opposite sex, mixed community bathing is on its way out. A few hot spring spas like Noboribetsu in Hokkaido still feature such pools. But, the vast majority of ryokan do not.
Some of the newer ryokan will offer rooms with private, though Japanese-style, baths. Others feature separate bathrooms for men and women. Thus they can be community but limited to members of the same sex. But, by far, the majority have only one room.
For the ultra-shy a hook and lock is always available. Sometimes, and better still, a housemother with the looks of a Marine seargent and voice of a Jewish mother will hold the masses at bay.
Whatever ryokan you choose, sooner or later you’ll have to take a Japanese style bath. Like most things here, there are a few rules of etiquette and customs to be observed.
The bath room is usually tiled from floor to ceiling. Along one wall is a hot and cold water tap. The tub, in one corner, is generally square and very deep. A step half way down provides a submerged bench to sit on. It is already filled with steaming hot, clear water. Other equipment includes a tiny stool about one-foot high and a large plastic bowl.
Beware! Ryokan often do not provide towels; and, in some instances, no soap. If you should forget, front desks generally carry both items at nominal cost.
In such cases, the towel itself is no larger than 6 by 8 inches. Don’t be amazed by the size. Keep in mind the fact that only one is used in the bath for both washing and drying.
Pondering that future aspect and trying to remember what moment of insanity led you to this perilious precipice, you are now ready for a bath.
You start by disrobing in an anteroom and depositing: clothes in a plastic basket provided. You will learn to spend as little time as possible in this room especially in the winter. It’s always inadequately heated.
Taking up the wash and dry towel you clutch it over whatever you feel is a strategic spot. This provides a form of modesty in case there are others in the room.
Upon entering the bathroom, head for the taps picking up a stool and plastic bowl as you go. Sitting on the stool proceed to mix the desired proportion of hot to cold water in the bowl. This mixture is then poured over your body. Once water logged you may proceed to soap and thoroughly wash. Satisfied you are scrubbed, rinse away the suds with more clean water from your tap-to-bowl routine. With all traces of soap removed you are ready to enter the tub.
Soaking is a favorite pastime. The tub in Japan is for relaxation not work. However, you may find it difficult to relax in near boiling temperatures.
If it’s your lucky day, only one Japanese will share the tub. Two or more signals the start of “Samurai” a game of stamina gleefully designed to see which warrior can take the hottest soak by the addition of more steaming water.
When you have boiled to a bright red, it’s time to get out. If you still don’t feel like Mr. Clean, you may rewash and resoak. Remember, though, never mix the two. The same soak water will be shared by all members of the ryokan and must be left clean.
A final rinse with clear tap water completes the job. Ring out the towel and head for the anteroom.
Drying works amazingly well with the damp rag except in winter. Then unless you’re fast, body frost develops and you depart for your room like an ice cube.
So much for the Japanese bath.
If I’ve scared some timid souls away, I didn’t mean to. Actually a Japanese bath can be an exhilarating and restful occasion. In some instances, like community bathing, it can also be an unforgettable experience; one that forms new friendships or provides an education.
It’s not infrequent that shortly after returning to your room there will be a knock on the door. It’s probably someone you just met in the tub who wants to show off the rest of the family. Or, maybe, another has a gift of fruit to silently shove in your hand.
Perhaps the most unusual encounters come during the bath, itself.
Many Japanese are anxious to learn to speak English. At any time or place they will make an effort to ask questions, even when bathing. While getting over the embarrassment of teaching in the nude, try and remember you may be making a great contribution to mankind. After all it’s a rare time when East mets West and with all pretense stripped away can get down to bare facts.