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Japan, the Introduction

May 1, 2014

There are places in the world which speak to my blood, which touch my soul, telling my bones that this is the land of my people, a place I could call home.  Japan is not one of those places.  Everything is exotic, unexpected, confusing, mysterious, surprising, unfamiliar, delightful, hidden.  Foreign.  Japan grew as a nation of islands in self-imposed isolation for hundreds of years.  Customs, habits, and practices of human society developed independently of the rest of the world.  I can only make observations as an outsider,  through the filter of my own western experience.  So, I will tell you how Japan shared herself with me.

No travel blog post would be satisfying without photos, yet I’m staring down about a thousand digital images in desperate need of a ruthless culling.  So, I’ll begin with one of my first lessons which, for reasons of propriety and decency, doesn’t lend itself to photographic documentation anyway.

Public Baths, see also Onsen and/or Sento

As in some Muslim cultures I’ve visited, sex-segregated communal bath houses are traditional institutions serving both practical and social functions.  The Japanese, however, have upped the ante.  Washing thoroughly is but the crucial preface to the goal of a good, hot soak.  No bubbles, no disco lights, just clean, still, steaming water at about 41°C (105°F) or higher.  My muscles have never been happier.

The process begins with leaving the shoes near the front door, as in Japanese homes, temples, and shrines, possibly trading for house slippers.  The ladies’ bath is generally designated by a red banner and the corresponding kanji.  The gentlemen’s is blue.  First will be a place to leave the house slippers, then shelves of baskets for clothing and towels.  Disrobe and bring the washcloth into the bath room, where there will be short stools, little tubs, and low spigot wash stations with hand-held shower wands on the wall.  Also mirrors.  Directly in front of where one sits down, way down, folded up, to wash.  I could have gone the rest of my life without that vision and regretted it not one bit.  Truth hurts.  And motivates.  But my summer work-out plans are for another day.

Then we wash.  Rinse the wash tub ~copper-banded wood like a cask, if it’s really authentic~ and the stool.  Use the wash cloth to scrub thoroughly.  Rinse self and washcloth well with the shower wand or repeated dumping of the bucket.  Squat, not to be standing and risk splashing a neighbor.  Ring out the cloth and fold it on top of the head so as to know which one is yours.  It never goes into the communal pool.   Now we may enter the bath.  Aaaahhhhh.  The very best are hot spring fed ~onsen~ and outdoors in a soothing garden setting.  The quiet chatting of grandmothers warming their old bones is a peaceful background along with chimes and water burbling.

After the good soak, there is the rinsing of self, replacing of stool and tub, drying the body with the cloth, ring it out, dry some more.  No one goes dripping back into the changing room.  I found that I prefer bathing just before bed, being too warm and relaxed and putty-like to face anything more demanding.  To do that, then wrap up in a soft cotton yukata, the light summer robe and/or nightclothes generally provided at traditional inns (ryokan), is just about the perfect closure of a busy day.


The small ladies’ sento in our ryokan in Kyoto.

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