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Japanese Bathing

As I didn't get around to it when discussing Capsule Hotels (*clicky*), I thought I'd write about the whole bathing thing in a separate article, so here you go.

The Japanese have pretty much got bathing down to an art form. Whilst us Brits just get our kit off and dunk ourselves in a bath, it's nowhere near that simple for the Japanese - so I'll do my best to explain.

In Japan, you can bathe in loads of places, but this list of three sums up the most common places:

a) Japanese homes.
b) Ryokan/Minshuku (Japanese-style inns) and many hotels.
c) Public baths.

I thought I'd show you a pic of what a public bath looks like. As a tin shed, this is a pretty basic one (although it was free, so I wasn't going to complain).



But the more seriously cool ones look like this:



Should you ever want to find one, you'll need to ask for o-furo. (The "o" is honourific. One always talks about baths nicely). Alternatively, if you're looking for one of the baths that are heated naturally by volcanic activity, you'll be looking for an onsen. The characters are shown below:


温泉

Bathing prices in most public baths are around 200 yen, although some "sauna" complexes in capsule hotels will add up to another 1,000 yen for the privilege of visiting theirs. When you enter, they'll probably ask if you want one of their towels. Unless you've already bought a special Japanese bathing towel (in which case, you probably don't need this guide), get one. They're usually only about 200 yen and are about the dimensions of a facecloth, but about three times longer. They're marvellous things - I'll explain why in a moment. Don't bother using your regular Western towel. The Japanese call towels ”タオル” (taoru).
Of course, the first thing to do is find the changing rooms.

The men's is: (otoko).....

Whilst the women's is: (onna).

It's usually the case that a big curtain with the character concerned is hanging over the doorway - so you shouldn't be able to miss it.

The next thing to do (and this might sound like a stupid thing to say) is to take one's clothes off. Whilst in Britain we keep ourselves generally covered in a swimsuit in baths, it's not the case in Japan - get your kit off. That said, most (but not all) Japanese baths are segregated, so you'll only bump into people of the same sex, anyway. When you take everything off, you should find that you've either got a locker to put things in, or a little basket. Stick everything in there and then walk your way through to the main bathing area - everything in these places seems to be separated by sliding doors. Don't forget your little towel!

You should discover two things as you go through:

1) That there appears to be something that looks like a huge bath or appears vaguely swimming pool-esque.
2) That there are loads of low-level showers with little stools to sit on next to them.

The key thing to remember here is:

DON'T WASH IN THE BATH.

It's purely for relaxation purposes. All scrubbing must be done at the showers. To be remotely soapy when entering the bath is a bad thing and will lead to much scowling on the part of your fellow bathers.

Now, this is the fun bit. The scrubbing. Without going into too much gory detail, the towel is a multi-purpose magical item that works as facecloth, loofah and all sorts. In most baths you'll see a little hand-bowl next to the stool. The usual protocol is to fill the bowl with hot water and work with that and keep refilling it as you use it. That said, the Japanese quite like throwing their water around and emptying the contents over their heads. Washing with gusto is just fine. Soap/shampoo is usually provided - so there's no need to take your own. They usually have a few bottles of it right to your shower.

Anyway, wash away and just make sure that you don't have a bit of soap remaining on you. Once rinsed, it's time to enter the bath.

Most people tend to enter somewhat gingerly, as there's a tradition of having the bath water so hot that it nearly causes burns and turns your skin pink. Simply easy yourself in and relax. After an exceedingly hot Japanese day, it's a really good way of unwinding - and even on a cold day it works nicely too. Sit in it for as long as you can stand (usually a few minutes, at best).

In some places, they have cold baths too, so once you've boiled yourself, you can die of shock. I've not worked out what the benefit of this is yet, although I have tried it, weird a sensation as it is.

Once you're finished, it's time to exit, dry off and get dressed. If you wring out your towel you bought earlier well enough, you can dry off with it too. They're marvellous little things. It's usually good protocol to get rid of the worst of the wet stuff on the wooden stands that are usually by the bath door - this saves you from dripping all over the place. If you're staying at a Ryokan/Minshuku, this is the time you then put on your yukata (bathrobe) and go vegetate somewhere.

...and there you go. Hopefully, that's enlightened you a bit (if you ever were curious). It might seem a bit daunting at first, but actually, it's thoroughly enjoyable. Bathing is such a deeply ingrained part of Japanese culture that should you ever go to Japan, it'll be hard to avoid. As usual, feel free to e-mail me with any questions - I'll take the answers to the bottom of this post for the benefit of everyone else.

Questions....and answers!

Q) Would it be bad form to wash, soak, wash and then soak again?I only ask as on the few occasions I've had a Turkish bath, the theory was to wash, soak out the grime in a sauna, wash (cold shower), sauna again then get a two stage massage involving a harsh scrubbing then a full on deep tissue massage. The point being I think to get a deep cleanse by sweating out any impurities. As the Japanese are bath experts do they have a similar system where you can wash, soak, wash, soak, shiatsu?

A) No. In fact, it's ok to wash, soak, jump in another bath of cold water (does things for the pores) and then hop back in the hot one again - that's a common thing and would probably replace the second scrub. Another thing is that you can almost get in the bath without scrubbing - as long as one washes one's genitals first. Nice. I didn't go into that originally. A lot of saunas are "gentlemen only" establishments and for an extra fee, one can be "scrubbed" by a lady. I kid you not, it's pretty commonplace in a lot of capsule hotels and the like to go for massages/scrubbing as well as the bathing. Shiatsu or an alternative is fairly commonplace.
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