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
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
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.