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Total Immersion

Total Immersion in Tokyo

JAPAN | Wednesday, 14 May 2014 | Views [194] | Scholarship Entry

My best experience with public nudity was in Tokyo. Visiting for the first time and craving a true cultural encounter, I decided that a trip to a sento, a public bath house, would be perfect. My “spa” fantasy faltered at the presence of a vending machine out in front, but I bought myself a tiny bar of soap and a teeny little bottle of shampoo, left my shoes outside and went on in. The attendant handed me a skimpy towel and pointed down the hall to a changing room, lined with lockers with plastic spiral key chains. Inside, a group of older Japanese ladies interrupted their conversation long enough to supervise an obvious amateur. No, put your jacket in this locker, one gestured to me. No, wear the toilet slippers when you go into the toilet. No, you can’t wear your bathing suit. They laughed (at me?) and waved me through the frosted glass doors and into a different world.
The room was spacious and brightly lit, smelling faintly of sulfur. Inside were naked ladies of all ages, shapes and sizes perched on small plastic stools beneath a waist-high row of shower heads. I jumped right in, crouching awkwardly on my stool for a quick wash before easing into a large pool of near-scalding water the color of weak tea. An authoritative woman walked past, stopped, pointed and barked in English, “You! Hair up!” I quickly fastened my hair to the top of my head with my locker key bracelet and slunk to the far end of the tub, wondering how many other rules I was breaking in my appalling cultural ignorance. I began to realize that my western standard of personal hygiene bore no resemblance to the fastidiousness with which these women washed themselves, scrubbing ferociously, rinsing and then soaping again with equal vigor (the most enthusiastic looked as though they had been dipped in whipped cream). While I was uncomfortably naked, my fellow bathers washed and soaked and changed pools and washed again unselfconsciously. I was surprised at how the modesty which infuses Japanese culture and society does not apply the bathhouse, but then I thought about the strange hypocrisy of my own culture regarding the unclothed human figure (that somehow it is okay to use images of nudity for entertainment and advertising, but not okay to actually be nude). Eyes closed, I tuned into the layers of sound around me: the hiss of a shower running, soft laughter, the sudden slop of water rinsing off a soapy body. I was relaxed and squeaky clean: Ahhh! Full cultural immersion.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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