I got naked with a bunch of old men and tried to figure out how to wash my booty without insulting anyone, and that pretty much sums up my trip to Japan.
Everything that happened in those two weeks happened in the public bath. The furtive glances, the failed attempts to blend in, the unfamiliarity and the discovery and the bafflement and even the necessity of it all. I was in Japan for Calvin’s wedding, and I was in the Kyoto bathhouse because after three days of sweating in ninety percent humidity, lugging a thirty-five pound backpack through streets and temples and shrines, and sleeping in parks and train stations, I smelled worse than nattō.
I knew how get to the bath thanks to Google Maps and a sign above the doorway that, after circling the block and ruling out all the other options, I suppose looked somewhat like a hot spring. I knew how to pay for it, because if I knew if handed the attendant 10,000 yen, he would give me the right change despite my sunburnt skin, sweaty blond hair, and inability to say anything more substantial than konnichiwa. Japan appears on every Top 10 list for safety and lack of crime, and after spending a summer several years ago hitchhiking through a country that never appears on those lists, I felt safe here. Lost and illiterate, but safe.
“No body wash.” The attendant mimed rubbing his chest. “No shampoo.”
I nodded. “No body wash, no shampoo.”
“Yes. You need towel?”
“I have a towel.” I pointed to my backpack and made a thumbs-up.
The public baths, called sentōs, are traditional. Communal and extremely not private, aside from a wall dividing the men’s half from the women’s half, they snuggle into small buildings throughout Japan. Cultural relics preceding in-home bathtubs, sentōs have joined the realm of paper walls, shoe removal, and bowing—a realm that isn’t necessary or practical, but elegant. Civilized.
Showerheads lined the walls, stunted showerheads, waist-high and useless. Three baths took up the middle of the room, each as large as a hot tub, and beyond those, there lurked a fourth bath and a sauna room, and then a door leading to an outside courtyard where a sitting area and a fifth bath awaited, this final one, I later learned, fed by a natural hot spring. All of it felt crowded and unknown and elaborate, filled with old men and old customs that I would almost certainly offend.
One of those old men stripped down and headed for one of the stunted showerheads. I dropped my backpack and followed. I picked a showerhead on the opposite wall so I could sneak glances at him through the mirror. Although language and currency and grooming habits do not transcend the Pacific Ocean, openly staring at another naked man does.
Things I learned from watching him:
- Shower before using the baths.
- Bath houses provide stools for sitting.
- Sit (don’t stand) for your shower.
Things I did not learn:
- How to wash your booty when your booty is sitting on a stool.
Things I did not learn until too late:
- The basket with a bar of soap does not belong to the bathhouse. It belongs to the grinning, naked seventy-year-old shuffling toward me.
“Hello! You like sentō?” He was very naked.
“I don’t know yet. It’s my first one.”
“I come every week. Here. Where are you from?”
“The United States. Seattle.”
“I’m sorry, I used your soap earlier and didn’t realize it was yours. I thought it—”
“I’m sorry. I used your soap.”
“Sorry? You like sentō?”
“Yes, but I accidentally used your soap.”
“That one.” The man pointed to one of the baths. “You like that one?”
Maybe he was being polite and deliberately misunderstanding me. Maybe he hadn’t seen me use his soap. Maybe he didn’t care. But he pointed at the bath again, so I left my stool and slid into the hot water.
I lasted half a minute. And the second bath was even hotter; my butt started spasming as soon as I sat down. Muscle spasms twitched through my right cheek, giant, jerking spasms like the kind that happen after a long day at the gym at the end of a long week at the gym. I must have walked more than I thought—and then my legs went numb.
And then nothing. No spasms, no numbness.
Then the butt-twitching and the dead legs started again, stopped again, started again, stopped again, and I gave up and moved to the third tub.
Third Bath: too hot.
Sauna: slightly more hot and humid than the streets of Tokyo, where a five-minute walk left my shirt soaked.
Fourth Bath: too cold for soaking, but, as demonstrated by the still-grinning man who had misunderstood me, ideal for scooping up in a bucket and pouring over your head.
Hot Spring Bath: just right. I shared this one with the still-grinning man who was now my friend, and we discussed Ichiro Suzuki and Seattle at the very limits of bad English, nonexistent Japanese, and crude sign language.
And that was Japan for me. Sitting naked in a dichotomous country, overwhelmed by the glare and density of Tokyo, where 38 million worked and shopped and hurtled on overcapacity trains past skyscrapers and advertising, and just as overwhelmed by the other side: the ancient shrines, the Buddhist temples, and the gardens hundreds of years peaceful. Sitting naked in Kyoto, illiterate and impolite, dependent upon grinning old men who showed civility and graciousness to an unprepared traveler. Sitting naked in a sentō that was as strange as any other custom—Christmas, or a church service, or a tailgate party—but more refined, somehow, by the nakedness of it. More humble, perhaps. Or more content.
Back at my stool, I shaved and brushed my teeth. One old man had spat toothpaste into the gutter that lined the room, so I did that, too. I now had clear pores and wrinkled fingers, and I smelled like minerals and a stranger’s soap, and I was ready for another day of culture shock and awe.
But the butt-spasm tub. I needed to go back. I had to try it again, for the same reason I had eaten raw horse and uterus and whale meat and locust: I didn’t understand it.
Twitch, numb, nothing. Twitch, numb, nothing.
I noticed two plates of metal that ran the length of the tub. One at my lower back, the other at my ankles. They were electrocuting me, combining two things my parents told me never to combine. And although it felt strange, it felt oddly pleasant.