Public Bath or Bust!

Written on December 5, 2010 by Carey Hall Waldrop

This is a syndicated post, which originally appeared at Aisle 3C & a cup of tea, please. View original post.

Let me just say that I am MODEST, to say the least!  I never go out of the house thinking that something in my wardrobe is “out of sorts” or missing or showing anything that would scare the public or warrant children screams.  I always hated gym class in middle school, having to change in front of other girls in the locker room.  And God forbid I would ever have to go to a public shower in Church youth group!  (on frequent mission trips, it did happen quite often)  Getting naked in front of people is NOT my idea of a good time…

Well, my “modest ideals” came crashing to a halt in Japan.  I had no choice, you see!  I had never even heard of this whole realm of “public bath.”  WHAT??  Could there be such a thing?  Could certain cultural groups actually enjoy stripping down in front of others and engaging in some form of bathing ritual?  No, I don’t think so.  Surely not.  And Carey was going to have nothing to do with it!

Ahem….I’ve quickly learned that what I want doesn’t always pan out.  I was on my first of trips to Japan with about 7 other Canadians and 8 other Americans.  We were all newbies, to say the least.  Chopsticks, what?  Green tea every meal, what?!  Driving on the other side of the road, WHAT??  “Explicit materials” all over the public view, EXCUSE ME?!!  Some things were just a bit too confusing for this seemingly “modest” and polite culture.

And then, the Canadian team heard the report from the Americans.  “Public Bath Scandalous Horror Ensues…”  Some of the American girls (yes, I was on the Canadian team also feeling a bit strange) had gone to public bath because they had to.  And then, the public jacuzzi tub nightmare began.  Let’s just say that the Americans were a bit more than their Japanese counterparts had expected in the big, piping hot, PUBLIC tub.  Stares and “pokes” ensued.  Gives a whole new meaning to the Facebook “poke,” huh?  The Americans were mortified. They had been “violated” in front of other curious on-lookers.  This was my worst nightmare come true!  We all had a good laugh…but please, oh please, don’t make me go!!  “I can’t do it, Captain!!

Oh, the rumors were out.  And the fear seeped in.  I knew we were next.  The next place of temporary residence was without a deep “IN-HOUSE” Japanese tub, which you literally jump into and soak in an upright position.  I was starting to think that bathing was somewhat important to the Japanese people.  Very clean and fresh, indeed!  But, really?  Do we have to do the public bathing ritual???

Then the fateful night arrived.  My group of teammates and I, (whom had known me to be the modest individual described above) ventured out to the place where we would bath for the evening, with bathing products in tow.  We found a locker room of sorts….oh, Dear Lord, please rescue me from this childhood nightmare re-emerging before me…and then….one by one, we dropped our “drawers” and daintily draped towels over ourselves, tip-toeing out to the big open public bath room.  I hoped none of my teammates saw me.  With the stealth of a ninja, I darted out to the first open stool with removable shower head.  I tried not to look at the other girls…we avoided sheepish eye-contact.

There were only a few other Japanese strangers in the room at the time.  We found ourselves a bit more comfortable….ok, NOT so bad!  One by one, as the strangers recognized there were foreigners in the vicinity, they quietly slipped out.  I wondered, were they embarrassed too?  Was this all just a little bit too “close for comfort”?

Now, what I’m about to describe should not be taken in the wrong light.  What I began to experience was a form of… liberation.  Here I was, stripped down, in the middle of another country!  We were all in this together!  No more shame, folks.  You gotta do what you gotta do!  Stench and B.O. for all the world to smell, or get naked in public.  Slowly, we all began to dismiss the morbid shame in it all, and the only thing you could do was laugh or cry.  So we opted for the LAUGHING.  Here we were, each on our little stool posts, with shampoo and bath poofs in hand, laughing and bathing like seasoned pros in the middle of countryside, Japan.  No more shame.  No more modesty.  Just good-ole group cleanliness!

Do you think that was the end of our public bathing adventures?  Not even close!  We traveled to a seaside area as tourists, and were not staying in homes again.  So, we ventured once more to another public bath spectacle.  This time, we were seasoned veterans.  Only this place, this one was unlike the first bath house.  This one seemed more like a spa, and the bathing was OUTSIDE!  Uh oh….the panic set in again.  At least we were still in separate bath houses from the men.  On our way to the locker room area, we came upon a sign on a closed door, which I can only hope was a bad translation for “massage therapy room.”  On the door was posted….”Slap and Tickle Room.”  We all lost it.  Another ill-fated attempt at “good English.”  The mental images were just too much to take, and we still laugh about that sign to this day.  We slipped into the locker room, hoping this was not the kind of establishment, warranting a “slap and tickle room.”

We found that our next bathing experience would entail an outdoor steaming pool, which looked very much like a pond complete with lily pads and toads.  Yummy.  I checked the premises….fence, check.  Tall gate, check.  Secluded, check.  Dignity….well, that was lost somewhere on our first day of arrival.  So, like wild banshees on the run from wanton explorers, we bolted out into the open, humid Japanese summer afternoon.

We might as well have had champagne and strawberries.  We slowly met eyes with one another, panning from one wild-eyed adventurer to the other.  An underlying sense of knowing passed around the bathing circle.  Yes, we had done it.  We had done the dance of the “tip-toed bandits” and plucked down into the streams of life-giving, lotus-blooming  warmth.  I slipped further down into the warm lily pad pond, watching the steam rise from the water’s surface.  I felt a strange sense of abandonment, of reckless adventure. I was somehow new, a confident young woman–unafraid….momentarily unashamed.

Sadly, this was not to be my last encounter with public baths in other countries.  I guess others just don’t care as much about modesty or group propriety.  Hehehe.  Sometimes, surrendering yourself to uncomfortable cultural experience in far away lands is all you can do.  So for lack of a better phrase, “Public Bath or BUST, baby!”