The Stares of Strangers and my First Public Bath

In Hanamaki I had my first experience with an onsen ryokan (hot springs inn). Previously when I had been to Japan, I had always stayed in a cheap business hotel. That’s because I usually travel alone. This time I had a traveling companion, M, and she wanted me to have a genuine Japanese getaway weekend; so she found us the Hotel San-Emon. Traditional tatami mat room with in-room dinner service and unlimited access to the indoor and outdoor baths.

I had never been to a hot spring in Japan before. I had been to one in Germany, but the experience was totally different. I knew it would be going into it. In Germany everyone wore bathing suits, people swam, kids splashed. In Japan it would be nakedness and quietness. Bathing suits in the bath are verboten.

Like most non-athletic Americans I’ve talked to about this, I was a little apprehensive about showering in front of everyone and sitting naked with a bunch of other men. Way outside my realm of normal behavior. But you don’t travel halfway around the world and ignore local experiences. So I was going to do it, nervous or not.

My nerves got frayed a little more when I got off the train in Hanamaki City. The people were incredibly friendly. I had people at the station come up, shake my hand, and thank me for visiting their town. They spilled their guts about all the best things to see and do and eat in their beloved city. It was among the warmest welcomes I’ve ever received anywhere. That reaction aside, people stared at me constantly.

Constantly.

No matter what I did, from the moment I got off the train, I was always aware of three, four, twelve pairs of eyes trained on me. What is he wearing? What snack is he buying? What tourist brochures is he picking up? People in Tokyo don’t bat an eye when a white person walks into view. (Well, usually. I have a few stories.) In Hanamaki I was apparently such an unusual sight that nobody even pretended to be polite about it.

But again, they were incredibly friendly. The looks came from curiosity and novelty, not hostility. It was only uncomfortable to the extent that I felt like I was on display, not that I was worried about myself or my property.

This wasn’t my imagination either. After we left the train station, M leaned over and whispered, “Did you notice how everyone was staring at you?” As if I could have missed it.

M and I wandered the city for a few hours before checking into the ryokan. During that entire time, the stares didn’t stop. Nor did the friendly welcomes. People would come right up to me, shake my hand, and say “Pleased to meet you.” (Everyone who greeted me in English said that first. It’s like the local English teachers hadn’t known the words “hello” or “hi”.)

My nervousness about doing something stupid in the bath increased a bit more once we were at the ryokan. We got settled in to our room, and it came time to use the public bath. I put on the yukata they provided me with. Now, I need to stop a moment and say that I have been taught how to wear a yukata and kimono. I studied Japanese folk dance, so I’ve worn them many times. So there, in the room, I put on the yukata nice and proper, and M laughed. She told me I looked too feminine.

“Too feminine? This is how they taught us to wear a yukata in dance class.”

“Minyo dancers always look feminine. Even the men.”

Great. Just what I needed. I could walk into a room full of naked men, already likely to get stares based on my ethnicity, but now also because I dressed like a girl.

M helped me man up my attire: Show more shin, let the chest hang more loosely. At least I had known better than to tie the obi in a bow.

I got down to the men’s bath and found I was in luck. There was nobody there. I stripped. I showered.

In case you’ve never visited a Japanese bath or seen a movie that showed one, let me paint a picture. There’s a row a faucets and mirrors. In front of each is a little plastic stool. When you sit on it your knees come up to mid chest. They’re that small. The faucet has a shower head on a long hose. You have a plastic bucket shaped to look like an old-fashioned wood bucket. There is soap, shampoo, and conditioner.

The only thing you take to your shower station with you is a towel, somewhere between a hand towel and a body towel, which you use to cover yourself while walking around. Sitting on the tiny stool, using the shower head and plastic bucket, you thoroughly clean yourself and rinse off. You are not supposed to get any dirt or suds in the bath water. You cover yourself with the towel as you walk to the bath, but the towel is not to touch the water. You go in naked.

So this evening, with nobody there to watch, I entered the bath and sat there in the hot water for 15 minutes. Nobody entered. I got out. Dried off. As I was putting my yukata back on, someone entered. As expected, he stared at me briefly, but I wasn’t in the room very long.

I went out to the lobby to wait for M, who had the only key to our room. As I sat on the couch, relaxed, wet hair and a towel around my neck to catch the drips, people walked by, staring and smiling. I smiled back.

When I went back for another soak the next day, I didn’t have the same luck. There was already a man in the bath. As I walked over to my shower station, I checked to see if he was staring. He was, on and off. It isn’t polite to stare when people are naked, and he tried, but couldn’t seem to manage all the time. As I showered, I would on occasion look into the mirror and see him staring at my back. When he caught that I noticed, he would look away calmly, not furtively, not guiltily.

Once I sat in the bath, he avoided looking in my direction. The only time he did was when there was a reasonable enough excuse. I changed position. I sighed. Anything like that. Anything that broke the tranquility, he looked at me. Fair enough.

As I sat soaking, before long other people entered. They too would give me the glance of ethnic curiosity, but look away. They very consciously looked in other directions the entire time I was in the bath. Once I realized that’s what people were going to do, I leaned back, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the naturally hot water.

After 20 minutes, I got out, toweled off, went back to my room. As soon as I left the bath area, the stares resumed. I didn’t care. I felt relaxed. It had been a really pleasant soak.

On reflection I find it ironic. I had been worried about people staring at me naked in the bath. As it turned out, naked in the bath is when I got the fewest stares.

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