Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Thoughts on the Japanese Bath

In the early nineteenth century Shikitei Sanba wrote Ukiyoburo (The Bathhouse of the Floating World), a collection of humorous stories taking place in a public bath.  In the introduction he had this to say:  

“There is, one realizes on careful reflection, no shortcut to moral learning like the public bath. It is, after all, the way of Nature, and of Heaven and Earth, that all are naked when they bathe—the wise and the foolish, the crooked and the straight, the poor and the rich, the high and the low . . . While a man of feeling may have his private thoughts, the unfeeling bath affords no privacy” (Sanba 1809-1813, p. 137).

I remember feeling the same way during the many visits I made to Japanese onsen (hot springs) and sento (public bath houses) over the years I spent in Tokyo.  In the steamy rooms of the baths–some run-down but clean, some incredibly posh–all of the preconceptions about what constitutes female beauty could be thrown out the window.  Ancient women whose breasts sagged to their waists, women in their twenties with perfect curves, skinny girls with no breasts or hips to speak of, tan girls, pale girls, mothers with infants–the bath made them all strangely similar, none more or less attractive than the other.  It was a joyful parade of flesh in all its forms. 

One of the first questions that Japanese friends and acquaintances would often ask was, “Weren’t you self-conscious being naked with so many strangers?”  Which is a rational question, I suppose, given that contemporary North American society doesn’t really have a tradition of public bathing.  Maybe I was mildly self-conscious at first, but I don’t remember ever feeling that way.  Granted, I never experienced a mixed bathing situation (rarer and rarer in Japan), and some of my male friends seemed a little less enamoured of the bath house than my female friends.  Still, there never seemed any reason to be self-conscious.  People weren’t there to stare, they were there to bathe.

Well, there WAS that one time when I went to the outdoor onsen in Tottori prefecture, with its baths perched on a hill overlooking the ocean.  I opened the sliding glass door to very quickly discover that the bamboo “privacy wall” only came up to my waist–and the shore was lined with fishermen.  Might have felt a little embarrassed as I quickly dropped to the ground. 

I miss bath houses a lot.  I miss having an excuse to just loll around in hot water and feel pampered for an hour, but I also miss the idea of a place where arbitrary standards of beauty don’t apply.  Where fat bodies, thin bodies, old bodies, young bodies, pale bodies, dark bodies, and scarred bodies can move around proudly without covering up.  “The wise and the foolish, the crooked and the straight, the poor and the rich, the high and the low”–we need more places where all of them can be, literally and figuratively, naked.

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One comment on “Thoughts on the Japanese Bath

  1. Leila
    October 11, 2009

    Ah the memories! I so miss my neighbourhood onsen in Kashiwa (remember when we went together?:-)…The salt room, the sauna, the cold pool (AMAZING!), the massage jets, the eucalyptus steam room, the hot pools outside…sigh.

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2009 by in Japan, Uncategorized and tagged , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life

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