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Nothing Like Finding Yourself in Hot Water

May 09, 2019

Despite the fact that much that is prevalent in Japanese culture originally emanated from China, the Chinese are now importing a Japanese cultural ritual. The Nikkei Asia Weekly recently ran an article entitled Asians Dip Into Japanese-style Hot Springs. The growing adoption of communal bathing is readily understandable as more people become familiar with Japan’s furo (bath) culture.

The image of a Chinese bath shown below could not be further from the concept and rigid rules of hopping in a Japanese onsen (hot springs bath). First of all, everyone is wearing bathing attire which would not be the case in Japan. On the other hand, there would be little joy in seeing some of the Chinese without their rather unusual bathing costumes. Moreover, the setting of the hot tubs does not invoke any feeling of peace or tranquility.

In contrast, the preferred Japanese hot bath is outdoors. The gentlemen shown below are not wearing anything other than the small towel on their heads where it must remain until they exit the bath. They have thoroughly bathed with the small towel while sitting on a small stool using soap and rinsing with a small tub of water. Men and women often bathe in separate areas of an onsen facility and then share a common pool. There is a saying of the amazing coverage a Japanese woman can obtain from a small bit of toweling.

If you do not read Japanese, the women’s bathing section of a sento (indoor public bath house with heated water) is identified with red curtains while the men’s section has a blue one. Color blind geijian (foreigners) enter a sento at their own peril.  

Clearly, nirvana is a private onsen which allows one to bathe with your personal stool and tub before plunging into your own soaking tub of hot water at a temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit.  

It turns out the author has a private onsen in the Texas Hill Country which has absolutely no rules. In fact, the Ramshorn Ranch has very few rules whatsoever. As there are no geothermal hot springs in the neighborhood, plentiful natural gas heats the water to the desired 104 degrees temperature. The Buddha image provides a calming influence in the otherwise “Wild West.”  

However, should you go to a public bath house in Japan, you are not so fortunate on the rule front. One of the strangest rules is “no tattoos” as shown in this sign which is shown in both Japanese and English for the unwashed giejian.   

The most common tattoos in Japan and Korea are those that adorn the infamous yakuza (gangsters.) However, one cannot scrub off the evidence of being a gangster.  

The author was once placed in a water setting with a senior Korean yakuza, his younger female companion and a bodyguard. The yakuza admired my Buddhist five-line Pali Sanskrit Sak Yant tattoo while I commented on his glorious ink. As a common language was not possible, the yakuza used his hand to reflect pulling the trigger of a pistol and then crossing his hands in a handcuff position to portray incarceration which qualified him to wear the artwork. My response was a Thai Buddhist hand “Wai” which inferred a more peaceful reason. Nonetheless, we all bonded over a couple of beers.  

A 2017 Global Wellness Institute Survey indicated that over sixty percent of the worldwide hot spring facilities were located in Japan. Nonetheless, China has reached the second position. In keeping with the developing adage of everything is bigger in China, the super sento in Changchun, China occupies a 14,500 square meter facility which could hardly qualify as a “zen setting.”   

A public bath in Japan can sometimes be a challenge for folks with body art even though it may be based on the five precepts of Buddhism rather than the signature body coverage of the yakuza gangsters. Moreover, balancing yourself on a small stool while washing up can be tricky as well as the proper use of a small towel while entering the furo or bath. At the end of the day, the private hot tub with no rules suits most Texans.

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