Japanese Public Bath Houses: an Eye-Witness Account Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Japanese Public Bath Houses: an Eye-Witness Account

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Sure, it was the equivalent of about $15 US, but it was well worth it. We put our shoes in a little locker and handed the key in at the front desk, paid, and were each given a beach-style bag with a (very) small towel, a larger towel, a Hawaiian-style shirt-and-short set (everyone looks the same when in this uniform), and a locker key attached to a wrist band (so you can wear it in the baths1). Then we proceeded upstairs, past the game room complete with pachinko parlor, photo machines, massage chairs, video games and of course vending machines galore2, with plenty of Hawaiians walking around using them. I never actually used the floral wear, but I'm sure I would have fit right in if I had. The locker room floors were all tatami mats, so it was no problem walking around in socks or bare feet, and we could slip into the provided pair of sandals to use the restroom, thus keeping everything clean. Clothes went in the locker and the small towel was used for walking around in. As I mentioned, this was a very small towel: it barely fitted the average Japanese man's waist, but not mine, so I opted for getting my big towel wet and worrying about drying off when I came to it. We had arrived there late, 10.30pm, and the stay lasted for two hours.

Next, we proceeded to the main bathhouse. There were three main baths in the centre and to the side of the room. All along two walls was a tiled trough of hot rinse water, and close to a hundred washing stations, consisting of a plastic stool, a plastic bucket, a faucet, and a variety of soaps and shampoos: visitors sit on the stool and fill the bucket to douse themselves with. As mentioned previously, you always wash before entering the bath, or everybody else gets out in disgust. Then it's into the baths where you wear the towel (kind of), more as a gesture towards privacy, but in the bath you set it to the side.

The baths were like shallow hot tubs, with fountainheads shaped like lions and such, with lots of moving water; it was pretty hot. There were also huge 'tea' bags anchored in each, containing a variety of minerals and the like. One of them contained 'Chinese mountain drugs', according to my friend - a sign mentioned the area that each pool was designed after, and the effect of the ingredients. The Chinese pool was so potent that you could feel it tingling pretty darn quick: my friend mentioned particular body parts 'burning', but we'll skip those details. Through the glass doors was the 'outside' bath, and I was disoriented enough that I actually thought that it was styled after the outside and air-conditioned, until I looked up past the walls and saw stars. The bath was a sulphur-smelling bath, and very hot, and to the side of this bath were two lap-deep pools separated by bamboo screens that had high-pressure downspouts of water coming down from the ceiling. Bathers sit in the pool and move beneath the spouts to massage their backs and shoulders: it beats any hot tub I've ever been in!

The other areas were saunas. After jumping in and out of various baths (it's amazing how quickly you get used to the public nudity thing) I checked them out. One of them had two rooms and two doors, but you could only enter one of the rooms. I soon found out why: when I walked in I noticed a super-heated floor in the middle of the wood one, covered in some type of white mineral. I didn't know what to do with it, so I walked around in it for a bit, then sat down and rubbed some into my skin. The cut on my finger identified the material as salt: yes, it was a salt sauna. The one-way door was for exiting, going through a room that contained a network of sprinkler pipe that got rid of all the salt. It turned on automatically when I opened the door. We also saw someone who supposedly knew what he was doing actually laying down in the hot salt and rubbing it in, so we joined him.

In between the salt and the hot air sauna was an ice cold bath. Count me as a member of the Polar Bear Club: I went for it and it felt pretty good (I was pretty hot by then). In fact, I felt more and more relaxed so I stayed in there for a bit. I got so relaxed I almost felt numb, then, when I started to get dizzy and almost pass out, I realised that being cryogenically frozen is probably pretty relaxing, too, but not something you want to do to yourself unless you really have to. I think I was in the beginning stages of hypothermia, and my heart rate was really slow. I got out and sat for a while, then checked the temperature of the water and it really was just above freezing, much colder than normal tap water. I finally went into the dry sauna to stop shivering, and was surprised that it felt normal in there for way longer than it should. After that I was OK, but it was a little freaky. I learned my lesson...

When you're finished, (you can take a break and go Hawaiian in the game room), you wash again. There was a little cart with wash cloths and toothbrushes sealed in plastic. I didn't see any toothpaste, but I tried it anyway. Guess what: when you wet the toothbrush, the pre-applied toothpaste on the bristles goes into action, (a small thing, but it shows you the general idea of the place). Afterwards, my friend and I had our pictures taken in one of the machines.

All in all, it was very, very relaxing. I probably wouldn't have thought of trying one out, but now I'm addicted.

1The only thing you wear, I might add.2Including one filled with socks, t-shirts, and boxer shorts in case you forget clean ones.

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