Observations on Japanese culture - Part 10 - Bathing

Aside from the food, the part of Japanese culture that I enjoyed the most were the baths. In particular I had four specific experiences with the baths that stood out.

On the first day after our arrival we were all jet-lagged. One of the kids I was with woke up at 3 am and said he couldn't sleep and was going to take a bath to relax. Through the wall of the bathroom I could hear the water start, and then it ran and ran for practically twenty minutes. I don't know how long he was in the bath, but I was surprised it could take so long to fill up. I managed to doze until 6am, and then finally got up myself. When I went to take a shower I realized why it took him so long to fill the tub: it was only 4 feet long, but about 3 feet deep. Essentially he was filling up a miniature hot tub for a 15 minute bath.

I've read that the way he should have taken the bath was to start the water in the tub, and then take a shower while waiting for it to fill. Once you're clean you climb in the bath to relax. The bathwater stays in place until each member of the family has a bath. That's why it's so important to shower before you climb into the bath.

Later we stayed at the ryokan Hotel Shikisai near Lake Chuzen-hi in the hills above Nikko (click here for reservations). This is a fancy onsen (hot-springs hotel), and the main feature of the place was to bathe, eat, and relax. No problem there!

As soon as we arrived they gave us some yukatas to change into, and then we bathed, ate and relaxed. A particularly nice way to adjust to jet lag.

There's a protocol to bathing. First you wash yourself completely in the showers. There are some little stools you can sit on, and some buckets to help dump the water over you. After you've soaped, washed and rinsed and you're completely clean you can climb into the hot water bath for some relaxation. I liked how most of the faucets separated out the temperature of the water from the force of the water. That way you have one knob that turns the water on, and makes it stronger or weaker, and on the other side you have a knob that adjusts the temperature from cold to hot. Once you find the perfect temperature you don't need to worry about readjusting the controls. You turn on the water, get wet and then turn it off. Then you lather up, and turn the water back on to rinse. A side note: you don't have to stick with the shower. The "old-school" method seemed to involve filling up a small bucket and dumping it over your head. Traditionally about 10 buckets is enough to declare you clean.

The third experience that stood out was our bath at the Tokiwa Hotel in Tokyo. This is a pleasant little hotel with friendly staff and easy access to the trains.

The men's bath at the Tokiwa Hotel in Tokyo.

In this case the bath was a radium bath. Apparently this is caused from the same sort of radiation that causes radon gas to build up in basements.
Some Japanese people believe it's healthy to drink the radium water, which is expelled as radon through burps.

And finally, my friend Keishi, whom I met at Oregon State University, wanted to show us an activity that was especially Japanese, so he took us to the Oedo Onsen in Daiba (southwest of Tokyo). It was fun, and interesting (thanks Keishi!).

In a way it felt sort of like going to a bowling alley: It's a family activity, everyone changes their shoes, and puts on a comfortable...bowling shirt? Ok, that part's different.

We got to choose which design we wanted on our yukatas. Linda was happy to see that even some Japanese women had trouble tying the obi for the Yukata. We all stood in front of a helpful diagram in the locker room. Some tourists from Singapore asked Molly and Linda for tips on the protocol of the Onsen. We were old pros by then!

At that point we split up into boys and girls and each went to the baths (sorry, no photos). The hot water is supplied by wells drilled several hundred feet into the rock under Tokyo. The raw water is about 78 degrees Celsius, and then it's cooled to around 40, although there was one cold tub at 20. Everyone bathes naked, except for a little hand towel which you can use however you see fit. (Linda) There was a large indoor bath as well as an outdoor bath. The outdoor bath had large pools and waterways with river rocks on the side. Molly and I felt like characters in a Japanese painting. After a bit we got hungry and went to one of the restaurants around the concourse in the onsen.

Here are some photos of the concourse at Oedo Onsen

People can shop, eat, play games and take naps all in the onsen.

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