Sunday, 20 September 2009

3 things that I love about Japan, #3

Following on from my last post, here is #3 of the 3 things I loved about Japan.

Things that I love #3 - Public baths

This is something in Japan that you tend to either love or hate, but I would definitely recommend trying it out at least once if you're over there. Just to explain the idea of public baths, it is basically a place where people from the local neighbourhood all go and bathe together, fully naked, and that's the part that puts a lot of people off. For someone from outside of Japan it can be a strange concept at first, and I also know Japanese people who feel uneasy about the idea too, but if you're willing to get over your fear of bathing naked with other people, it can be a really enjoyable experience.

Now, the wearing no clothes with lots of other males isn't the reason why I enjoy the public baths so much, although being naked in public like this does add a certain feeling of liberation and complete cleanliness to the experience. And I don't enjoy the public baths because you get to see members of the opposite sex naked, as just about all public baths are divided into male and female sections (if you're lucky, you might be able to find one of the combined baths though). I think the reason I enjoy the public baths is because it's such a relaxing experience, and you feel so clean and relaxed afterwards.

I'll try and paint a picture of what visiting a public baths is like and what you do there. The actual building is generally quite small, and you get the feeling most public baths are family businesses. The first thing you do when you enter the building is remove your shoes and place them in a locker. You take your locker key, and go through to the lobby area where there is generally a few sofas with people who've just come out of the baths relaxing there. There's also a fridge full of cold drinks for you to buy, a TV, and usually a massage chair. You pay your money to the person on the front desk, and walk through a curtain to your changing room. Here you put your all belongings and clothes, (apart from a flannel, shampoo and shower gel) in another locker, and proceed to the warm, steamy bathing area, which is separated from the changing rooms by a sliding glass door. When you enter you'll see people either washing themselves over at the shower area or relaxing and chatting in groups in one of the pools. First you grab one of the plastic bowls and put your locker key, flannel, shampoo and shower gel in here, then proceed to the shower area. Before entering the pools you must wash yourself, so you grab a small plastic chair and sit down in front of one of the showers which are at about head height when you're sat down. There's also a mirror right in front of you so you can watch yourself while you shower. After you're clean, you can head over to one of the pools on the other side of the room. Each public baths has a different combination of pools, which could include a jacuzzi pool, a pool with carbon gas, a really hot pool and even sometimes a pool with electricity in the water, which is meant to be good for your muscles or something. I've also seen radon pools as well, which I never went in, as bathing in a radioactive substance isn't something I wanted to do. There are people who do though.

You don't have to go in all the pools, but you can if you want. You generally spend 10-20 minutes relaxing here. Then there's usually a steam room, which is fun to try out. You might not wanna stay in there too long though, as they are so hot you start to feel faint and light-headed, and instinctively want to leave. There's also a pool of freezing cold water to clean off all the sweat from the steam room, and if you want to go back into one of the other pools to relax, you should wash yourself with the cold water first. When you're done you head back to the changing rooms and get dressed again, then head out to the lobby to relax.

I've never felt so clean as when I went to the public baths, and you're soaking in warmth and warm water for so long that you can't help feeling relaxed. You might feel a bit dehydrated after all that heat though, so it's a good idea to grab and drink. After a few minutes in the lobby you'll want to say "arigatou" to the person at the desk, then wrap up tightly before you head back outside to make sure you don't catch a cold.

If you go to Japan you can also visit an onsen, which is similar to a normal public baths, except that the hot water occurs naturally from a spring, and it's bit more up-market and expensive. I only had one experience with an onsen, and that was getting thrown out for my tattoo. The vast majority of people with tattoos in Japan are gangsters called yakuza, and so there's generally a ban on tattoos at onsens. I never had any trouble at the public baths though. In fact, I once saw a yakuza with tattoos covering most of his body at one of the public baths.

Look out for #2 coming next.

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