That bath thingy I’ve been meaning to post.

Imagine the best shower you’ve ever taken.  Water at just the right temperature to relax in, plenty of water pressure (if you’re like me and you like that), plenty of time.

Now imagine something at least 5 times nicer and you may just have the idea of a Bathhouse (either ofuro or onsen, depending on whether it’s a hot spring) in Japan.  One of the professors at my college – in fact, our non-Japanese expert on Japanese culture – is an expert on baths, and has written a book specifically on them.  That’s how nice they are.

Some Japanese baths, at least the ones you’re likely to find in hotels or houses, are one-tub affairs.  Generally, they’re the same idea as baths here, except that you take a brief shower before getting into the tub (this is a general rule; you shower, so you get all the dirt off you before getting into the bath.  This is so you don’t pollute the water for the next people to get in).  These individual baths are generally a bit hotter than most hot tubs stateside.

But if you go into an actual bathhouse, that is, an establishment where you pay money to use the bath, you’re in for a treat.

Yes, you’re expected to be nude (except for a cloth you hold yourself, but don’t let it get wet).  It was embarassing the first time, but it helps that I don’t wear my glasses in.  You get over it quickly, since nobody else makes a big deal out of it.  It’s easier if you’re going with friends, too.

I went to three different bathhouses in Japan, two onsen and one ofuro, so my experiences are hardly far-reaching.  But they may help someone who wants to try them out.

Basically, a bathhouse is sort of like a spa.  I’ve never actually been to a spa, so I’m judging from hearsay.  Anyway, most of them have separate male and female sections (as the alternative would be rather distracting sometimes).  You pay the cost (usually around $3) and enter, put your stuff in a locker and take your cloth and whatever soap/shampoo you’re going to use while showering into the main area of the bath.

The main area contains of a bunch of showers you’re expected to use first, along with stools and bowls.  (The stools, naturally, for sitting, and the bowls to gather water to cleanse you more thoroughly than a simple shower).  Generally the shower heads are on flexible hoses (a neat trick I’d love to see more on this side of the Pacific), so you can easily target the water.

Once you’re done showering, you can move onto the “baths” themselves.  In the ones I tried, there were 3-5 different pools of various temperatures, ranging from chilly (~50-60 degrees F) to extremely hot (120+ degrees).  You’re actually expected to move from one to the other, so pick and choose.  The water’s almost always very clean, and you may find several baths with jacuzzi-style massager jets as well.

The nicest thing, though, and I never would’ve thought to do this if I hadn’t seen someone else do it, is to go into a hot bath, stay there until you can barely stand it, then move to the coldest one.  If the bathhouse has a sauna (which one did), that’s even better.  The difference in temperature feels absolutely amazing; there’s no comparison.  Yes, it’s a bit shocking, but not nearly as bad as you might think; your increased (or decreased) body temperature makes up for the different, and you feel your body reacting to the new heat (or cold).  It relaxes the muscles almost perfectly, and you feel (for lack of a better word than Suikoden’s to describe it) “Toasty”.

Combine this with an onsen.  While an ofuro is a bathhouse with plain water, an onsen uses water from a natural spring – and yes, there are actually regulations saying how much of certain minerals the water must contain to be an onsenOnsen are said to have various medicinal benefits depending on mineral content and such.  All I know is, the water feels even better.

As a final note; although I’ve only been to a few such places, I did get a chance to visit one that even my Japanese Culture professor (native Japanese) had to admit was strange.  The “Electric Onsen” in downtown Kyoto (just a little ways West of the Old Imperial Palace, if I remember right), near the Kyoto Cheapest Inn.  It has all the usual stuff; in fact, it is an Onsen and has massage jets and a sauna.  It’s probably the nicest overall I got to visit.

The strange part, however, was the Electric part.  That doesn’t refer to the water being artificially heated (as it all is usually anyway); one of the baths had electricity running through the water.  There’s a short story behind this.

Basically, I was there with a couple of friends.  And we were all wondering why this would be referred to as the “Electric Bath”.  We’d been in there at least a half hour, but hadn’t noticed anything strange.  Everyone else was avoiding one bath off in the corner, so we were too.  We didn’t notice it (me because I didn’t have my glasses, at least), but there were all these warning signs around this one bath.

Anyway, eventually one friend gets the courage to try this thing out.  He stepped in, and the next thing I know I hear him swearing and stepping back quickly.  Turns out the bath looks like a giant capacitor.  Huge metal plates on each side.  If you step in, you may not even notice anything for a few seconds.  The water’s kind of lukewarm (~70 deg) and there’s little suspicious about it.  Until you suddenly feel a light tingling.  Then your muscles start to twitch.  If you stayed in too long, you may lose control of your muscles entirely; that’s probably what the signs were mostly warning about (the only thing we could read at the time was simply Denki, or electricity).  The charge was higher or lower depending on your distance from each metal plate; if you were cautious it might actually be relaxing.  It was just weird at the time.  I’d like to try it again sometime.

Anyway, during the time after we left the 6-week educational program at Kanazawa, we tried to find a bathhouse in each city.  Although we were quite successful in Kobe and Kyoto, we didn’t find anyplace good in Tokyo (though we only had a small neighborhood to look in) or Nagoya.   They’re still quite common if you know where to look; look for an entry cloth thingy that simply has the character Yu (ゆ).

It may sound quite strange, but baths in Japan are the most relaxing experience I’ve ever had – we stayed in one for 2 hours one time – and I can but recommend them to everyone.

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