Looking for more essays? Check out A Friend in Heat, a real account of how wrong cycling in Japan can go.
ALLOW ME to introduce you to the wonderful world of Japanese hot water.
If you’re from Alberta, like me, the term ‘hot spring’ probably brings a lot of fond memories to mind. The Rocky Mountains in all their majesty. Old-timey swim suits rented at the front desk of Miette Hot Spring in Jasper National Park. People walking straight past the showers in the change rooms, not to mention the signs encouraging their use. To this day, whenever I see a soggy bandage it brings me right back.
I used to love jumping into those massive swimming pools filled with geothermally heated water. I used to think that what I had was enough. That is, until I came to Japan and received my re-education.
If it’s your first time, you should know that there are rules to follow. But I promise they’re all there for good reason, so please pay attention.
Rule number 1: Don’t have tattoos.
Tattoos are nothing less than a confession of one’s uncouthness, disrespectfulness, and connection to organized crime. After all, Yakuza members wear tattoos, so anyone else who sports them must be equally sinister. And don’t give me any crap about how ‘It’s my family’s coat-of-arms’. If they want you to brand yourself, you’re obviously from the wrong family.
What’s that you say? You want to show off your cute 3-inch butterfly tattoo just above your hip? Sorry gangster, you’ll have to peddle your lies and deceit somewhere else. This bath house is for tax-paying citizens only.
Got a horrific portrait of your child on your shoulder that you want to get wet? Not on this hot spring supervisor’s watch.
“What do I do if I have a tattoo?” you ask? The answer is don’t have a tattoo.
Of course, there are ways around this rule. You can do your research and find somewhere that’s accepting of people of all race, creed, and artificial color. They exist.
I once lived near such a refuge for the permanently inked, called Yubara hot spring. It’s an open-air bath nestled among the mountains, and since it’s unsupervised it’s common to see people with tattoos on any given night. Every once in a while I’d even bravely strike up a conversation with them, rolling the dice with high odds of having a delinquency committed against me. Almost all of these people – if you can call someone with tattoos ‘people’ – told me they came from far away.
Now, I love a bath as much as the next guy, but driving two hours just for a soak? Don’t they have running water? I wondered.
My friend Tom and I were at Yubara once when we spoke to a pair of such men. Their backs and shoulders were covered in menacing tattoos, but we couldn’t resist.
The one who looked to be in his 50s – I’ll call him Stanley – did all of the talking, asking us what we did for work. He lost interest as I explained that we were lowly English teachers. When I asked what they did, only Stanley replied, giving the ultimate vague answer of “business man”.
I turned to the younger guy – I’ll call him Lewis – after some time, asking him directly, and he sent a devious grin to Stanley before replying, “I’m a driver.” Clearly it was an inside joke between the two of them; one that wasn’t funny enough to laugh at but warranted a knowing look. It’s possible that it was a sexual innuendo with the stick shift in this variety of driving being made of flesh, but somehow I doubted that Stan and Louie had that sort of chemistry.
Just when I thought the conversation was over, Tom complemented the two of them on their tattoos. They grew serious, thanking him but not offering anything more.
Another short silence. I was positive we were done talking when Tom piped up again. “I have a tattoo,” he said.
They looked puzzled. The American sitting in front of them was buck naked with no signs of anything other than a few moles on his pasty flesh.
“I love Star Wars,” he continued, slowly turning to show them his back.
I leaned forward, suddenly excited to see the exchange.
Here were two men with ferocious tiger and dragon murals spanning across their chests and over their shoulders. Art that exposed them as being members of a violent and lawless class. People to be afraid of.
In front of those men was a 24 year old boy proudly pointing to the palm-sized symbol for the rebel alliance just below his shoulder.
“Do you like Star Wars?” Tom asked, craning his neck like a nude model.
The two men grudgingly admitted that they, too, enjoyed the acclaimed sci-fi franchise. But judging by the looks on their faces it wasn’t a subject they wanted to get into.
I wondered if there was some shared Star Wars-related trauma between them. Or perhaps they were jealous that the tattoo parlor Tom went to had choices other than tigers, dragons, and koi fish on their menu. Or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t want to shed any more light on this tattoo-talk because they were thugs in a Japanese hot spring.
Rule number 2: Take off all your clothes.
No swim trunks, no board shorts, no bikinis or one-pieces. Not even speedos. The only suit you’re allowed to wear is the birthday kind.
Having quit competitive hockey at the tender age of 12, I never really got used to going o’naturale in front of others. Because of that, there was an adjustment period when I first lived in Japan, and I was never as nervous about it as when my brother Pat came for a vacation that year.
We went to a place in Osaka I’d been wanting to visit called Spa World. True to its name, Spa World is basically a relaxation amusement park with several floors full of hotel and massage rooms, and one completely dedicated to themed baths. When we were there, the men’s side was Europe-themed.
In the change room we peeled off our clothes, one item at a time, both of us avoiding conversation and eye-contact as we got down to our boxer briefs. I paused for a moment, considering the step I was about to take. Getting naked with your brother in the bath at home when you’re 4 is one thing, but I don’t think Pat and I had even done that. Between me being 23 at the time and my brother over 30, the two of us had more than 50 years of experience avoiding each other’s penises.
One voice in my head tried to encourage me, saying It’s no big deal. But a different one couldn’t help but wonder how my hairless torso shared the same DNA with the firefighting grizzly bear on my right.
Don’t be a pussy, I thought. Just show your brother your dick.
On the verge of hyperventilating, I faced away from Pat, whipped off my undies, and covered myself as best I could with the tiny hand towel I’d rented. Head held high, I led the way to the showers. This brings me to…
Rule number 3: Clean yourself before going into the bath.
But before diving into that I should mention the exception to the rule. Rather than bathing beforehand, some people will take a large cup with a handle and dip it in the bath water, splashing it over themselves. They give most of the obvious places a superficial go-over before jumping in the water, the unmentionables being the area that gets the most attention. This is called kakeyu.
In my experience, it’s generally older men who do the kakeyu. And they wash themselves with soap and water only after enjoying the relaxing waters. They are heathens.
One day, I asked my wife why these people bother washing themselves after going in the baths. As she often does, she looked at me as if trying to decide whether or not my question was worth wasting breath on.
Eventually she said, “Because people go to baths to get clean,” pointing out yet another difference between Canada and Japan. In Canada, we don’t go out in public to get clean. We go to the least public place we can think of, hopefully our own homes. If we go to a hot spring, it’s to have fun and get warm.
Of course, I’d noticed these kakeyu’ers in bath houses and hot springs throughout Japan, but until asking my wife about it I was ignorant to the fact that they weren’t lathering up somewhere else beforehand. Willfully ignorant, maybe. Instead, I assumed they’d bathed beforehand like the rest of us and simply enjoyed the feeling of water trickling down their Rodgers and Hammerstein.
I pointed out that these assholes were cancelling out all of the cleaning that most of us were considerate enough to do beforehand, but my wife just shrugged. For those of you who want to avoid any possible judgement, I suggest scrubbing down prior to jumping in the water.
Rule number 4: Watch your showerhead.
If you live in Japan and are lucky, you’ll find yourself with a membership to a gym that not only has showers but also a bath. In Niimi City there is such a gym, called Genki Hiroba.
Two standing showers in addition to five or six seated bath house-style showering stations line one wall, and along the opposite wall is a large bath that could comfortably hold around ten people. Off in the corner is a cold bath meant for one person, or possibly two very good friends.
At most seated showers, including Genki Hiroba’s, there’s a counter attached to the wall that holds shampoo and body soap about a foot-and-a-half off the ground. There are also little stools for you to sit at, and just above the counter you’ll typically find a mirror. Finally, most showering stations will have a faucet and basin in addition to a detachable showerhead, allowing you to pick your cleaning method of choice.
One day, as I finished rinsing the suds off my body, an old man sat down at the showering station directly across from the cold bath. He calmly took out a scrubbing towel, pumped soap into it, and finally began scouring himself. Thinking nothing of it, I stood from my station and walked behind him, plunking down for my post-workout ice bath.
As I settled in, embracing the cold, I watched the man bathing seven or eight feet away. He worked the towel behind his neck and across his shoulders before moving down his back. He leaned this way and that in his plastic stool in order to get into all the right places, like a seesaw balancing from cheek to cheek. I was captivated by his dance, recognizing perfection when I saw it. It felt a bit like getting front-row tickets to the bathing equivalent of Michael Jordan in his prime as the old man half-stood and began flossing his ass.
Signaling that the show was almost over, he took the showerhead from off its hook and began to jet water over himself. Even in rinsing the suds away, he was incredibly thorough, ensuring that not a single bubble was left behind. Again, he moved north to south in this practiced way and again I was mesmerized. So, when he reached his groin I was far too at ease.
He stood up from his stool once more, bending over ever so slightly to get the angle he needed, and for a brief moment I saw myself in the mirror. Between his legs, just below his golden globes, my reflection changed from a picture of serenity to one of horror. The old man lowered the showerhead, tilting it slowly toward his taint. I tried to stand, but could only move so fast after sitting in the ice bath for as long as I had, all the while water skipped playfully off his gravy boat, bombarding my face behind.
“OY!” I screamed as I did my best to shield my face with my arms.
The man shot up and looked over at me, horror dawning on his face as he realized what he’d done. “I’m sorry,” he said.
All I could do was stare in disbelief and reflect.
Where is the line that a person can cross from which they may never return? At what point does ‘sorry’ become a useless, vapid word, devoid of all meaning? When may a man say that he has been so debased that there can be no restitution? I submit that the junction is somewhere around raining pink eye down upon someone. And that is why you watch your showerhead.
Rule number 5: Be careful which bath you get into, especially if you have an asshole friend who can read Japanese and you cannot.
When I lived in Okayama City, I took my visiting friend Gary to a stone sauna not far from my apartment. Inside, you put on a pair of baggy pajamas rented at the front desk and proceed to sweat profusely in different rooms; one with the ground covered in pebbles, one made of polished germanium, and one made entirely of wood. There’s even a refrigerated room that you can get cool in, allowing you to go back out and sweat even more.
Once you’re finished with the main attraction most people go back down to the first floor and enjoy the baths, which is exactly what we did.
There were at least 5 different types of baths, each of which had signs describing them in Japanese and poorly translated English. There was a hot bath, a warm bath, and a Jacuzzi bath where reclining seats were carved into the tiles and jets were placed in convenient areas. There was even a section with the baffling name ‘water bath’, leading the two of us to briefly wonder what we’d been soaking in up until that point if not water. I thought of the warm sweat trickling from the stone sauna goers on the floors above and shivered before reading the Japanese on the sign. Here, ‘water’ simply meant plain old unheated water. In other words, it was the cold bath.
Then Gary pointed to another small pool with the name ‘healthy bath’. This one came with a lengthy list of instructions and warnings, none of which were translated to English. But if you were able to read it you would see things like “People with pacemakers not allowed” and “Live electrical current”. I was about to explain this to Gary when inspiration struck.
“It’s… a special kind of water,” I said as nonchalantly as possible. “The paragraphs here just outline the ingredients and the health benefits. It’s supposed to have lots of herbs and minerals and stuff that are good for you. Give it a try.”
Gary didn’t look all that comfortable in the first place, this being his first nude bath house experience in Japan. I’d caught several regulars ogling his gargantuan thighs and lavish Canadian buttocks as if they were wondering if he would taste good with A1 steak sauce. I’m sure he was aware of it.
But he looked even more uneasy at my description of the bath, almost as if he could hear the lie in my voice. It was like he knew that I’d been waiting since we first met in kindergarten to get him naked at a spa in order to prank him. I realized that I would have to bite the electrical bullet if I was going to pull this off, so I stepped in first, doing my best not to flinch as my body buzzed.
Whatever doubts he had disappeared, and he jumped in after me. With only one leg fully in the water and the other submerged halfway on the steps, the realization of his mistake was written on his face as his entire body went stiff – the less exciting areas anyway.
He turned his face to me, eyes wide with panic and lips sealed tight so as not to make a scene as he silently searched my face for answers. I replied with a look of my own; a wicked grin spreading ear to ear.
Don’t try this at home, folks. We were probably lucky that Gary didn’t have much in his bowels, otherwise there might’ve been a mess to clean up. And, honestly, I don’t recommend electric baths anyway. Why the Japanese thought that combining water with electricity was a good thing is a mystery to me. They’re not that uncommon, though, so watch yourself.
Rule number 6: Keep your eyes up.
Back at Spa World, my brother and I were forced to drop all pretense in order to clean ourselves. Shedding the towels, we went to work at the shower station, not caring at all about being naked for the first time in front of each other. In my case, ‘not caring’ happened to mean ‘being deeply self-conscious and having difficulty thinking about anything other than the common denominator hanging between our legs’. But let’s not worry about the little things.
I imagine this is a plight that many North Americans find themselves in. Coming from such a prudish culture, most of us are taught to fear sexual organs and be self-conscious of them, as if the glans and clitoris were the source of witchcraft and wizardry. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how often one swishes and flicks, the penis is not a wand. And using it as such will result in more mess than magic.
It’s not that the Japanese aren’t aware of what the human body is capable of, it’s just that they’re more comfortable with it. From the time they’re able to hold up their own heads most of them are jumping in baths with their brothers and sisters. Of course there comes a time when the brothers and sisters are separated, but they never stop getting naked with people of the same sex. Because of this they learn that wands come in all shapes and sizes.
For those of you who simply can’t calm the voice in your head chanting penis penis everywhere, there’s rule number 6, which I employed at Spa World that day. No matter how many great angles the mirrors offered or how many times Pat was looking the other way, I didn’t check out his junk once as we scrubbed ourselves clean. And as far as I know he didn’t check mine either.
The two of us made our way around the floor, sampling all of the baths, from Russia to Rome. We kept our eyes up at all times, and eventually the phallic cloud that hung over our conversation cleared. Finally, we were able to forget that both of us were naked.
Rule number 7: Ignore rule number 6.
The two of us entered a wide open bath with a Turkish scene painted on the walls. Since we were already quite warm we sat on the edge, dipping only our calves into the water. We’d been quiet for some time, and as I was alone with my thoughts I became keenly aware once more that we were both exposed. Looking down at the steaming mound sitting in my lap, I wondered: what does my brother’s look like?
Pat’s around 8 years older than I am, and with that kind of a gap in age comes a certain respect. He was the best in our family at hockey, had a chiseled face that drew comparisons to Girard Butler, and grew a fierce beard. One could be forgiven for calling a man with such an embarrassment of physical riches selfish. Likewise, one could also be forgiven for expecting the man’s nether region to be gold-plated and measured in feet.
I tried not to make my inspection too obvious, turning my head just slightly while peering out of the corner of my eye, and what I saw surprised me more than any gilded lily. He looked just like me. I never got the measuring tape and scale out, but as my eyes darted back and forth, I thought to myself, we have the same penis.
I then turned to survey the strangers casually strolling about. Some shafts were big, some were small, and others were completely upstaged by overzealous testes. Wild manes crowded many of the groins while some seemed to have been attended to by a professional. As I looked at everyone and everything around me, I felt a newly formed kinship with my brother, not only because of our similarities but also for the simple fact that we’d bared all.
It goes without saying that taking a look at Pat’s downstairs was a risky move. I could’ve seen almost anything, any number of those possibilities being catastrophic for our relationship. There might’ve been a monster down there, leaving me forever in fear of a rush of blood to the area hitting me in the face. Octopus tentacles were a possibility for all I knew. But thankfully things turned out fine.
In light of that, I’d like to encourage you to ignore rule number 6. Whether you’re surrounded by siblings or strangers, feel free to gaze upon all of the dong you’d like. If you’re a female, consider it a subscription to a streaming service for bush and boobs.
For that matter, take a visit to a bath house as an opportunity to study all parts of the human anatomy. There are glutes of all shapes and sizes, areoles like you’ve never seen, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch sight of a chocolate starfish or two. I just happen to be partial to male genitalia because of the variety.
I’m even working on my ability to guess a man’s age based solely on the sag of his scrotum. Male humans are similar to trees, I’ve found, only instead of the number of rings you measure their age by distance of balls to ground. It’s poetic, really. Little by little, we’re all being pulled down to our graves.
As you go about your personal journey in the bath houses of Japan, I hope that you too will learn to celebrate the wonder that is the human body. I think you’ll discover that we’re all just piles of flesh and bones. Some are much more carefully assembled or better maintained, but we’re all basically the same.
Inspired to see some Japanese hot springs? Check out our article on the most famous Japanese onsen.
If history isn’t so much your thing, go with the highest quality hot springs.