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Naked, With Strangers

By: Patricia Gaudet, Okotoks, Canada
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

“No shoes, no shoes! scolded the tiny Japanese woman overseeing us as we settled into the spacious serenity of our ryokan room.  A few minutes earlier, as we entered the traditional-style guest lodge on the Japanese island of Miyajima, we thought we had the problematic issue of footwear under control and stopped politely at the main door to remove our shoes.  “Shoes - no problem, come in!” we were told, and we went to check in.   After a lot of bowing and very few English words, our maid accompanied us to the doorway of our room and showed us a cupboard half-full of slippers.  We thought we understood, and slid off our shoes and stepped into slippers.  Moments later, she returned and was aghast to find four Canadian oafs lumbering about on the tatami mats in slippers.  She quickly corrected us, indicating that socks are the accepted footwear for walking upon tatami.  

Further experience taught us that these slippers are for wearing outside the room but inside the building, but are different from the pair of slippers which are kept in the tiny room housing only a toilet - but what a toilet!  A padded, heated seat makes it arguably the most comfortable seat in our nearly chairless accommodations, but it is hard to relax while contemplating the intimidating control panel on the right armrest, with flashing lights, simple but graphic pictures, and a myriad of buttons to press all cryptically labeled in Japanese.  Bewildered by all the technology, I could not figure out how to flush it.  My husband came to the rescue; my plight amusing him as he reached over and pushed the lever, just where it would be on a conventional toilet.  Flushing begins with a stream of fresh water for hand washing flowing into a mini-sink forming the top of the tank, which drains into the tank, completing the flush.  Clean, ingenious, efficient and very Japanese.

With entering a room and using a toilet being so fraught with difficulty, it was a wonder that we even contemplated something as intricate, complicated and ritualized as Japanese communal bathing, but we gamely decided to give it a try.  In a ryokan, as in most public bathing places, communal bathing is segregated by sex.  Despite this, there was absolutely no possible way my 16 year old daughter could be convinced to try what amounted in her mind to hot-tubbing in the nude with her mother, so I was on my own.  All I had to go on was a brief description in our guide book and the first hand report of my husband and son who tried out the baths on our first night. 

Now, it was my turn.  A hot, relaxing bath would be just the right way to end an active day of hiking and sightseeing.  Wrapped in my ryokan-supplied kimono and jacket with slippers on my feet, I ventured forth.  I decided to take the elevator, to avert possible disaster on the stairs in my floppy slippers.  Downstairs, the elevator doors rumbled opened onto quiet and I dared to hope for a moment I would have the bath to myself.  I left my slippers outside the curtained doorway, stepped around a screen and into the changing area.  I studied my surroundings.  Shelves of wicker baskets lined one wall in lieu of lockers; towels were stacked to one side and opposite were a triple sink and vanity area which angled off towards a sliding glass door leading to the bath.

I had just removed my jacket when I heard the soft babble of women’s voices approaching.  Two women entered and we acknowledged one another with polite nods.  After that, I detected nary a glance my way; I however, will confess to stealing surreptitious glimpses at them so I could figure out what exactly one was to do once inside the bathing area.  In order to stall, I put my slippers back on and went to use the ladies-room out in the hallway.  When I returned, my companions were a little further along in the process; I could discreetly follow their lead and thus, I hoped, not commit too many faux pas.

Now it was time.  I pulled out a wicker basket and stripped off the protection of the heavy cotton kimono.  Clutching a miniature towel, I timidly entered the bathing area. It was a softly-lit room with five stations along one tiled wall; each consisting of a low set of taps, with a removable shower head attached to a hose mounted above.  I walked behind the two ladies who were already seated and scrubbing vigorously, and helped myself to a plastic stool and wash bucket.  Following their lead, I sat myself down on the stool facing the taps and proceeded to scrub myself with mysteriously black soap from top to toe - twice over.  I must have done a perfunctory job - I was as clean as I figured I could possibly get, and very thoroughly rinsed, yet the Japanese ladies showed no signs of being close to finishing.  Not feeling up to further lacerating my already tender skin, I turned off the water, emptied out my bucket, tiptoed across the tile floor and immersed myself in the hot water of the bath, fervently hoping there was no crucial intermediate step I had overlooked.  The air in the bathing area was fresh and cool so the hot water felt marvelous.  The ladies soon followed me, apparently not appalled at the relative speed of my pre-bath wash and tactfully seated themselves on the angled part of the bath, facing away from me, all the while continuing their steady conversation.

It was heavenly; no chlorine, no bubbly-foamy hot-tub scum, just the trickle of water, dim lights and the murmur of a language I didn't have to pretend to not be listening to since I understood none of it.  As I relaxed in the tranquility of the hot water, I considered the many impressions Japan had made on me in the past few days.  Since arriving, we had been immersed in a montage of sights, sounds and flavors that were new to us, but right then, the basic human enjoyment of immersing tired muscles in hot water was familiar and soothing.  I smiled to myself when I realized that despite being naked with strangers, I was about as relaxed as I could be.

The Japanese ladies left the bath and I, feeling lightheaded and languid opted to follow after a brief interval.   Modestly holding the ridiculously small, thin towel in front of me in as casual a way as possible, I left the bathing area.  Standing facing my basket, I dried myself off as best I could with the scrap of towel, pulled my kimono around me, remembering  to tie it left side over right side as I was not dead yet, and left the bath.  As I shuffled slowly back to the elevator, I felt so relaxed it seemed my bones must have softened in the hot water. 

Back in our room, the rest of the family was each tucked cosily into exquisitely soft quilts upon their futon mattresses.  I turned out the one remaining light, burrowed under my quilt and was asleep in seconds.



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