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An Englishman in Japan - Bath Time

Date Posted: 2002-02-15

Communal bathing was once popular in Britain. The Romans brought it to us heathens along with things like straight roads and walls, which, up until then, we English hadn't thought of. When the Romans finally headed home, we decided to keep most of the infrastructure they left behind. However the idea of full-grown men sitting around in the bath together was just so foreign to us that "having mates around for some fun in the tub" was instantly erased from social agendas across the land.

There is also the issue of nakedness. English people keep their clothes on. Unlike our Mediterranean cousins, nobody bathes topless on British beaches. There are strict dress codes that we follow: Don't mix spots and stripes; don't wear white socks with black shoes; and above all don't sit around wearing nothing more than a grin. This leaves the Englishman in Japan with a dilemma because one day you are going to have to take the plunge and visit an onsen, or hot spring.

The lady at the front desk took my money and then gave me a white towel along with a quizzical look. A lone gaijin heading to the hot springs was obviously not a common occurrence. Armed with nothing more than my new towel, I remembered the advice of my friend, Wataru: "Always get clean before getting into the pools." Entering a deserted washing area, I came across the riddle of the two buckets and three bottles. The showers were all at waist rather than head height, which seemed a little bizarre until I figured out that one of the buckets is meant to be a seat and that you do your washing sitting, not standing. The three bottles had different kanji printed on them. I worked out their contents by trial and error. Once I had put the liquid soap in my hair and rubbed my whole body with hair conditioner, I pretty much knew which was which. Squeaky clean and smelling like a florist's, I slid back the panel doors and made my way into the main part of the onsen.

The towel had turned out to be no bigger than a handkerchief, but holding it at waist level I tried to blend in with the rest of the customers.

Blending in turned out to be a little trickier than I had expected. Being tall, blue eyed and foreign meant I already stood out. I was also the only person without the tiny towel on his head. Wataru had failed to mention that the towel was to be soaked in cold water and used keep my head cool rather than as a device for maintaining modesty. What Wataru had also omitted was that you should never just step straight into the deep end of a pool, especially, one with clouds of steam rising from it. All attempts at trying to remain inconspicuous suddenly became futile. As it turns out, it is practically impossible to ignore the sight of a foreigner stepping into the hottest pool at the onsen. I dropped my towel, burst out of the water yelping and then did what some locals thought was an impromptu version of a Highland fling.

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