Almost every day, after work, I get unashamedly naked with a bunch of strangers, and it’s great. It’s one of the things I missed the most about Japan.
There’s just something about a bath that’s so much more worthwhile than the hastily-grabbed shower. Doesn’t have to be a long soak, just enough to feel the warmth embrace you, soothe your frazzled nerves, massage your weary muscles, and… ahhhhh. They’re never more welcome than in winter, when you spend most of your time being just a little bit too cold. And it never hurts that there’s usually some spurious health benefit to the bath, minus ions and all that.
When I’ve tried to share this love of baths with non-Japanese friends, the results haven’t always been positive. Those that have taken the plunge, so to speak, have come out singing its virtues. But more often than not, they’ve looked at me as if to say, what did you people do with our Caroline? Who is this dirty perve in a grubby kimono? Why would I want to wallow in other people’s dirt?
Well, as to the dirt part, they’ve thought of all that. Japanese people wash before they get in the bath, leaving your soak guilt free. As to the nudity thing, thanks to the ‘civilising’ Christian influence of the late 19th century, baths are now gender-segregated. Except for the naughty private baths, where all bets are off. But that’s another story.
As for the nudity, well, they’re not exactly dens of pervy iniquity. People wash themselves, much as they do when they’re on their own. If you can get off on a woman with children your age making sure she hasn’t missed any crevices, then feel free to stare.
And that’s actually another thing I like about the whole scenario: reality is a nice reality check. We’re absolutely bombarded by images of women’s bodies on a daily basis, and it can be hard not to compare your own lived-in flesh with the tweezed, tweaked, airbrushed creatures you see all around you. But in the baths, what do we see…? Two arms, two breasts, bellies, a pair of legs and a bottom at the top; minor variations in size, shape, resistance to gravity. Pores, hair, spots, some wrinkles, bruises, scars, the odd varicose vein. All women, all different. Nothing ethereal, nothing ghost-like, no eerie sheen to the skin. All solid. All real. All beautiful.
It makes me feel proud to be one of them.
From here on November 25th 2012.