If you haven’t bathed in traditional Japanese style, you’ve missed a great experience. I’ve had a few opportunities to bathe like the locals do in Japan, but none to rival the one I’ll recount below.
First though, for readers unfamiliar with Japanese customs, here’s brief intro.
In Japan, you get clean before you get into the tub, the furo.
You do it with soap, a washcloth and a little bucket while sitting on a small stool next to a spigot located near the furo.
The idea is (1) to maintain the cleanliness of the water in the tub, which is normally used serially by many bathers, and (2) to reserve the furo just for a good, hot, soothing soaking.
A common image of bathing in Japan is of a small group of men and women together, naked, in the same furo. I’d like to tell you that after searching high and low, I found a place like this – except that I didn’t. (Well, I didn’t spend a lot of time searching either.) That old custom appears to have fallen victim to contemporary global mores.1 In fact, it’s almost as difficult to find old photos of a mixed-gender furo on the web as it is to find such a facility in the – ahem – flesh.
I vividly recall another furo experience I had on my first visit to Japan in 1971, en route home from India after two years’ service in the Peace Corps. It was a large communal (but all-male) pool. Unlike swimming pools, a furo is shallow – just deep enough to keep your head out of water when sitting or kneeling. What was remarkable was the temperature of the water. The furo experience is supposed to be hot – more than pleasantly warm. But this one was almost hotter than I could stand. I recall remaining as still as possible to create what I imagined to be a thin envelope of slightly less-hot, undisturbed water directly next to my skin. I didn’t sit there soaking for very long.
But let me now recall for you a furo “adventure” that I don’t suppose too many Japanese are likely to have experienced. It took place in 1985, when, still working for the U.S. Information Agency, I was assigned to the staff of the U.S. Pavilion at Tsukuba Expo ’85.2 As it happened, I was not the only member of my family present in Tsukuba that year. Since I was there for the duration of the Expo, plus several months helping prepare for its opening and another month to begin cleanup following its closure (about eight months total), my children – Adam and Naomi, who celebrated their 10th and 12th birthdays while there – were with me, then a single father, for the summer.3 But they were not the only ones. My step-sister Dolores was there too.4
So one fine weekend, the kids, Dolo (as we all call Dolores) and I took off for a couple of days’ sightseeing in the picturesque town of Nikko, about 90 miles (150 km) north of Tokyo. There, we stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Adam and I roomed together, and Naomi shared a room with Dolo. When it came time to bathe, we took turns in the furo.
Each pair of bathers got undressed and left their clothes (actually yukatas)5 in a changing room adjacent to the room with the furo, then cleaned up at the spigot before stepping into the furo to soak.
Naomi and Dolo went first, while Adam and I waited outside the changing room. While the girls were soaking, I noticed that the light switch was outside the changing room door. Playfully, I flicked it off for perhaps three or four seconds, leaving the girls to briefly soak in the dark. We all shared a little laugh.
However, I should have known better than to play games with Dolo, for whom retaliation is a highly developed art form.
It was then Adam’s and my turn to bathe. Dolo waited till she heard from our voices that we were soaking in the furo, entirely defenseless. Adam and I suspected something was amiss when we heard cackling outside.
First, Dolo switched off the light – and left it off. A few minutes later, out of the blue, we were being drenched with cold water. Dolo had gone outside the building, found a garden hose, turned it on and poked it through a small window high in the wall right above the furo. That cut our soaking time short. We got out of the tub and went back to the changing room to dry off with towels supplied by the ryokan. Unlike bath towels in the U.S., in Japan bath towels are often not much bigger than an American kitchen towel. We’d have then put on our yukatas, except that Dolo had found a way to filch them using a long pole. This left us with only the skimpy bath towels.
We had no way to get back to our room through the public area of the ryokan, where other yukata-clad guests were relaxing, except by wrapping the towels around the waist and walking as quickly and unobtrusively as we could. Adam’s towel wrapped nicely around his 10-year-old frame. My towel sufficed to cover about three-quarters of my girth (which was notably smaller at age 41 than it is today), so I paraded through the ryokan clutching the towel, with one thigh and the side of a buttock exposed.
It was an experience that put “bare ass” in embarrassed.
My advice to Adam before we headed back to our room: “Hold your head high and pretend nothing is out of the ordinary.”
Finally, as we approached the room, Dolo and Naomi ambushed us and tried to swipe our room key, which would have left us standing there, substantially undressed, in the hallway.
Luckily, they were laughing too hard, and didn’t manage to snatch the key.
The moral of the story: Next time you have a chance to bathe in a furo, put your yukata in a safe place.
- Mores = customs, conventions. Pronounced “morays” while having nothing to do with the notorious homophonic eel.
- Tsukuba Expo ’85 – an international exposition held that summer in Tsukuba Science City, a modern planned city designed as home to a number of scientific research institutions, 35 miles (55 km) northeast of Tokyo.
- My first wife and I were already separated, and when the children joined me for the summer, I let the Expo be their “baby sitter” while I was at work at the Pavilion. I judged the Expo grounds to be entirely safe and the children old enough to freely explore the many pavilions on their own, so I gave each of them the equivalent of about $5 in yen for snacks every weekday morning and turned them loose. They usually joined me for lunch and then returned to the Pavilion in late afternoon where the friendly young ladies who staffed our VIP room indulged them with ice cream and macadamia nuts.
- Dolores’ presence was truly a fluke. Then 23 years old and an adventurous young woman, she was still living at home in Honolulu with my father and step-mother (my own mother having passed away in 1974). Several months before the Expo opened she somehow (not through me! – I had no idea of this) got wind of the fact that the Japanese restaurateur who had won the contract to operate the U.S. Pavilion’s steakhouse would be in Honolulu to interview prospective American hostesses. Dolo thought this would be fun, so she and a good friend applied for the job, and they were both hired.
- Ryokans customarily provide each guest with a yukata, a robe in which to relax and walk around.