Two of my worst fears came to fruition during my month-long visit to Japan in 2004: being nude in public and singing in public. Luckily, not simultaneously. This is a tale of my Japanese bathing experiences and karaoke is for another time. I visited Shizuoka and Yamanashi Prefectures, the home of Mt. Fuji.
Bathing Experience as a Guest in a Japanese Home
Benefits of participating in an international homestay program are you become integrated into the host family’s daily activities. The first night with my host family we played a round of questions and answers before I finally understood the question, “When would you like to think about taking a shower?”
I was asked this around 7 p.m. and replied, “Mmm, maybe in an hour.”
Fifteen minutes passed when I was asked, “Would you like to think about having a shower?”
“Yes, I think I’ll have one soon,” was my answer.
Japan is an indirect society and I didn’t realize these weren’t questions but commands to take a shower. And what I later discovered, by delaying my shower time, I was holding up the rest of the family from taking their showers and baths because guests are typically invited to bathe first.
Prior to soaking in the tub, it’s necessary to take a shower to clean up and minimize the dirt and grime going into the tub. In the showering area there was a small stool, bowl and portable shower head.
My first shower was a shocker. “No wonder the Japanese take baths,” I thought, “because the showers are freezing!”
Soaking in the 100° F bathtub was a welcome relief and a heater kept the tub water hot. As etiquette dictates, when I left the tub I kept it full for the next person. The next day I was shown the wall thermostat which controls the shower water temperature, which is why my shower was so cold.
Did I mention bathing is strongly encouraged each evening? Of course, those were those nights when I just hung out in the bathing area and pretended to bathe, especially when I was the guest in a home that did not change their bath water daily and it was evident. The family mentioned in this post changed the water daily.
Public Nudity in an Onsen
My first onsen (public Japanese bath) experience happened during the third week of my month-long trip. Hya, a successful businessman who spoke excellent English, and Yoko, his wife who understood little, were my hosts. They were the one of the kindest and generous people I have met. Sadly, I learned Hya passed away a few years ago.
One of the most important skills I quickly learned in Japan was that communication is more than speaking the same language. With unspoken words, I was able to successfully communicate with my host families.
My farewell dinner with Hya and Yoko was spent at a luxury resort. Hya and I fed the koi in the pond outside and upon entering the lobby, Yoko smiled, grabbed my arm as we walked to the front desk for two towels. Arms interlocked, I was unknowingly led to my first onsen.
Shyly undressing, two young Japanese girls stood side by side to stare at me. Awkwardly, I tried to use my washcloth-sized towel to cover my female areas but soon gave up. At first I felt as though I was on display at a freak show as it was apparent these little girls hadn’t seen an American woman before, or least they hadn’t seen a this naked American woman before.
Yoko and I walked out into the bathing area for our showers. A bank of hand-held shower heads lined the wall with little wooden stools beneath. Plastic bowls and liquid soap sat on the counter. I sat on the stool, rinsed myself off with the shower head, lathered up with the little towel and filled the bowl with water to rinse off. Yoko scrubbed my back and vice versa. That’s the Japanese way of doing things.
As I learned, the ultimate bathing experience is an hour. Fifteen minutes to soak, shower, then return to the various baths to soak some more. Alongside women of every age, size and shape, Yoko and I pool-hopped from warm to hot and bubbly to salty.
We smiled at each other and I began to cry, knowing this was probably the last time I would see her. Yes, I admit the experience felt awkward in the beginning but as the hour progressed, I became more comfortable with it all. It was a new adventure and in an odd way, the experience gave me a newfound confidence for my curvaceous body.
Interested in more Japanese bathroom functions? Then read “How to Use a Japanese Toilet: Art of Peeing in Japan.”