Tag Archives: Public bathing

Don’t Eat the Water

Japan Sewer Cover

25 years ago in Japan there were still towns with open sewers. Oh the covers were pretty, some had very interesting grill work. They were all neat and tidy but rather odoriferous. Traveling is always an eye opener. Whether you stay at the Hilton or the YMCA. Some of the things that seem to be basic comforts of home are just not there. And you never know what it’s going to be. The best thing to take with you is a flexible attitude. It’s light weight and doesn’t take up much room in your luggage. In Japan it was towels. The rooms provided a robe but no towels. In Warsaw, Poland it’s making change, if you ask for change for a Zloty, they look at you as if you have done something completely horrible, and suddenly forget how to speak English. But, that’s a story for another day.

I didn’t go to Japan with a tour group. I just wandered around from city to city. Some the places were rather rustic. One hotel I stayed in made the Motel Six look like the Four Seasons in comparison. At one place I stayed there was a sign in the washroom that read “please don’t eat the water.” I could pretty much guess what that meant. Later one woman who could speak a little bit of English, pointed to the drain, held her nose and said “No drinky watah.” OK, bottled water or sake it is.

Bath houses were not a luxury in Japan 25 years ago for the average Joe. It was that or take a cold shower literally in an ally from a nozzle sticking out of the side of the building. If you were lucky it was not in plain view from the street. I learned how to shower in the dark. An apartment building I stayed in had 1 room for toilets on each floor, not per apartment. It was not segregated by gender. Lingering in the john was was not a neighborly thing to do. There was no bathing facilities. The bath houses were usually open from about 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm so you couldn’t just cruise in there whenever you felt like it.

A friendly Japanese lady took me there the first time to show me the ropes. Woman were not so westernized at this time and some had elaborate make up rituals. They even shaved their eyebrows off and them painted them back on. This may seem like no big deal, but looking through a cloud of steam in the bathhouse was sort of scary the first time. My escort wandered off and I couldn’t tell which one she was. Saying they all look alike seems rather rude, but you try picking a particular woman out of a sea of black haired women all in the nude, not even eyebrows. It’s not as easy as you think it would be. She finally started waving her towel and called me over.

The bath houses were segregated, theoretically. You walk in there, park your clothes (all of them) in a locker and head into the bath area. There is a wall down the center of the room about chest high, for a woman about 5 foot tall, not me. That is what separated the female side from the male side. So basically unless you crawled around on you hands and knees, which is rather undignified, you may as well let go of being shy. It was one big happy family in there. People talked and laughed across the wall and passed children back and forth.

Everyone sat on little stools and showered before getting in the tub. You did not get in communal tub without this step. The first time I stuck my toe in the tub, I thought, “oh my God, I’m going to boil alive.” But I didn’t. After a while I turned into a wet noodle of happiness. Bath house where have you been all my life?

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