In Japan,where I live with my wife and son,you find yourself spoilt for choice when faced with even the most mundane of lifes tasks.For example there are three ways in which you can take a bath.The first is not unlike home where you run a bath for yourself.Which sounds unremarkable and familiar but Japanese bath taking has afew subtle differences.You don`t jump in the bath tub wash yourself and then lay back and soak in your own dirty soap suds,dead skin and filth!
(After 30 odd years of doing this I`ve moved on-if you hadn`t already guessed by my tone.)
No .First wash ,shampoo and rinse yourself outside the bath using a small bucket to scoop water out of the bath or there may be a shower hose attachment on the wall. THEN ,when clean ,you can hop in the bath lay back and bathe .Once you`ve soaked to your hearts content DON`T pull out the plug!Also should you ponder ,not unlike the great bard himself , "To pee,or not to pee" DON`T!! For the water your in will be bathed in by the whole household.Even the way we take a bath is soaked in culture,as I soon learned.
When we first arrived in Japan we moved in with my wives family.The very first night I was offered the bath first and took it without a thought,like a true Englishman.While I was dressing upstairs after my bath I heard an almighty scream from downstairs closely followed by the padding sound of many slippered feet heading in the direction ,of what I knew to be the bathroom.In my ignorance I`d bathed as I always had-I didn`t pee!!=and when finished heartedly pulled the plug out ,checked my nasal hair in the mirror and merrily hopped upstairs."No,no,no,no,no".The bath water is for everyone-DON`T pullout the plug.It`s still talked about now 6 years later.I have mentioned to my inlaws that they really should get out abit more but thats rural communities for you!
So thats the first type of bath.The other two are similar to eachother as they both use the group method-such a popular way of approaching things out here.Thankfully the toilet is an exception to this rule.The `sento`or publicbath house can be found in all towns and cities.The other is the more up market `onsen` hot spring.The best of these are found in volcanic mountainous regions,hence Japan has alot of them.One of the oldest Dogo Onsen dates back some 3000 years.Onsens are Mandelas to sentos Bush juniors.Both it has to be said are treated with similar ritual by there devotees.Onsens are held in higher esteem to the peolple of Japan.They are believed to be good for your health and well being.Let us not forget people live longer here than anywherelse in the world.Group bathing in Japan has been celebrated by poets for centuries.As far back as 759AD, during the Nara period ,the 'Man`yoshu` ( 10 thousand leaves) was written and in it are poems paying homage to bathing.The famous and prolific Haiku poet Taneda Santoka celebrates them in his writings `Somokuto`(A grass and tree pagoda).
from a good bath,
A fine moon.
A haiku poem by Taneda Santoka 1882-1940
I was brought up singing"rub a dub,dub three men in a tub".Which once again tells me cultures in everything.Religion,marriage,language and baths!
Now what is group bathing etiquette?First and fore most it`s divided into two sub groups.Men on the left and women on the right.And vicer verser.But always in your same gender group please.Ã¯1/4Â¯nce you enter the changing room strip naked and put your clothes in the locker or,as is more often the case at onsens ,put your clothes in the basket provided.You`ll propably see a small hand towel the size of a large handkerchief.This has two uses.One is to wash yourself with and the other is as a cover for your nether regions as you enter the bathing room.Rather than my towel fashion foepar when I first entered an onsen I casually wore my towel slung over my shoulder.It was abit like one of those old cowboy films when the good guy enters the noisey saloon and everyone goes silent and stares at him. Mind you people naturally glance round to see who`s coming into the baths ,so don`t be upset by this.After all you could be a noisey ninja on an assasination mission!Nevertheless using the towel to cover your nether regions is a far more subtle way to enter the baths .Keep in mind your never going to be a wall flower in here if your of Euro,Afro,Espanic,Arab,Artic or central Asian stock!You can`t blend in .
Now your in the bathing area.You`ll see a variety of pools,none more than mid thigh deep.Before you step into one of the pools you must..?Yes thats right ,you must wash yourself off you dirty so and so!Arouund the walls will be small plastic stools with a plastic scooping bucket sat opposite a mirror and a shower hose clipped to the all.There may also be shampoos,body soaps,pummy stones etc.Have a good scrub down , rinse off and your ready to go.The pools can be very hot at first.Some pools are cooler than others.Splash around and feel your body relax.It`s great.A half hour or so of this and your ready for a long cool drink.A beer after a long hot bath goes down a treat.
A couple more points.Tatoos are not always excepted at onsens.Sentos don`t seem to mind.But some onsens can be abit uppity about them.I cover mine with an elasticated sports band.Also being foriegn you may find yourself prey to "the happy scrubber" alot of sentos have them.This is not some kind of bathing geisha or male host ;I hasten to add.The happy scrubber is usually an old boy or girl,with afew teeth missing who start scrubbing your back as your sat by your mirror washing minding your own business.DON`T punch them!They are friends!They`re just well meaning souls expecting nothing in return but for you to scrub their backs.
I love group bathing.Onsens and Sentos alike.There as Japanese as sushi,manga and karaoke.So if you come to Japan be sure to clean yourself up at one.