If you want to live in Japan and not stand out from the crowd with a kind of rudeness, you must first master the “ojigi”, the etiquette of bowing. It is necessary to bow just enough to fulfil the greeting without offending anybody. Read my blog Akushu or Ojigi. The second thing you need to manage is “hadaka no tsukiai”, which I translate as “social etiquette of the undressed” or “public undressing without trauma”. In ojigi, a person expresses interest and friendship to another person, however, in the act of their meeting, reserve remains. Everyone is a bit on own side. They are in the world. Hadaka no tsukiai is something more, it is an attempt to rest in Paradise, where Adam and Eve have not yet tasted the apple from the Tree of Knowledge and so it does not occur to them to cover their genitalia. Understand, hadaka no tsukiai takes place in a public hot bath sentó, where everyone is naked. The word “hadaka” means “naked” and “tsukiai” is a word for meeting and staying together. And if proper ojigi is the key to Japanese society, then hadaka no tsukiai applies many times more. When it comes to nudity, you are to be without a reserve. Fully. Innocently. The Japanese, especially the older people, would tell you that in the end we are all the same when we are naked. And that it is good to learn to be naked while among others.
It’s not easy. My first sentó bath was not a joy, but a trauma. I was twenty years old. I came to Japan to meet the family of my future husband and his aunt also lived in the same household. After a few days, we went on a trip together and stayed in a Japaneseryokan hotel. A simple cotton kimono yukata, haori jacket and tenugui towel were prepared for each of us in our shared room, and with this equipment we headed for the large hotel spa without delay. Everybody longed for it but only I had no idea what awaited me. At the datsuiba changing room, I chose one part on the shelf, in which I was supposed to put all my clothes in the same way as the women around me did. I didn’t mind those women I did not know, but it was too much for me to undress in front of the aunt and I also hesitated to see her undressed. I thought to wrap the towel around my body, but it was too narrow strip of cloth and besides, no one around me did so. I dug up all my courage and went to follow the aunt. She was already waiting for me inside and showed me where to wash first. Whole body and neatly. Using the towel. And a low stool and a pail. Then she said, that I can go to the big shallow pool with hot water. But the water was so hot I didn’t get into it. I sat down on the stone side of the pool, occasionally dipping only my palm into the water, and even though I knew it might not be appropriate, I looked around and watched the others. Even the aunt. I watched their nudity. And I was ashamed. They were all in the fog and had the towels folded on their heads. They moved like ghosts. That’s how it seemed to me, because I remained closed in my own non-Japanese world. I didn’t get engaged. I could not rest joyfully in the undressed world with others. I was a foreigner. Outlander.
Let me tell you one more story about shared bathing fully undressed. That time I already had two children and I was fluent in Japanese. With my sons – two and five years old – I drove our first car Suzuki jeep and went to the north of Japan wishing to get to know the Japanese onsen spa placesmanaged according to the original Japanese customs. In the past men and women bathed in public baths together. Even hospitals were not divided into a men’s department and a women’s department. In illness, death, and bathing people felt no need to distinguish being a woman or a man. In Tokyo, which has largely absorbed the prejudices of Western culture, konyoku, means the bath of men and women together, is nowadays unthinkable. I needed to drive at least 300 kilometres from Tokyo and, moreover, north to so to say Japanese wilderness to see how I could handle konyoku. I visited several famous konyoku sentó places and I was fine. Perhaps because I was with my children, I felt relaxed and like everyone else around me. I was already used to the hot water, sometimes up to 50 degrees warm, and I enjoyed the nice company of bodies. Honestly and innocently. With a sense of belonging to the human species. One forgets where he or she is from and how old is and that he or she has a body and is naked. And paradoxically, the same body receives streams of energy for revitalization. It enters without restraint. Those naked bathers are like in the temple of God.
On the same trip through the north Tóhoku region, one evening at a youth hostel we met an ensemble of nomadic theatre for children. They invited us that my boys could watch their performance in one kindergarten the next day and then that we could go with them to the same ryokan, where they would spend the night. It was hard to say no. We joined them. We were together all day and it was fantastic. We talked about many things and promised to see each other in Tokyo again and keep in touch. In the evening of that long day we arrived at the ryokan and as soon as we placed our luggage to our room, we took towels and went to the onsen. It was an old rural ryokan and everyone had to use own personal equipment for ofuro (furo). Many guests even had their own futon mats for sleeping. No wonder, they lived there for a month or two. They were very old men and old women staying in one narrow long room, sleeping next to each other on the ground, and they cooked for themselves too. Of course, bathing was konyoku and there was no time limit. 24 hours 7 days a week. Everyone moved around dressed in yukatas. The changing rooms of the onsen were divided, but the bath was shared. When we were undressing – me and my children (the rule is that children under the age of eight are with their mother), two girls came who were also members of the ensemble, and when they realized that they would be together with everyone else once in the pool compartment, they decided not to take their bath. They thought they would be ashamed in front of their male colleagues. They were girls from Tokyo. I hesitated for a moment too, imagining that I would be in the same room undressed with the boys I had been talking to all day. I knew they were already inside. I could not wrap myself in my towel. This is simply not the proper manner. There was no warning sign, as in other public sentó, that large towels and swimsuits were rude and unhygienic equipment, but … No one thought that anyone with such a thought would appear in this remote place. I ordered – let’s go! I comforted myself that inside would be steam, nobody would see me, and if I get into the tub quickly I would be fine. I dived into the water and didn’t move for a while, because the water was really hot. I thought I would meditate quietly and anonymously but everything was different. The boys from the theatre had already told the old women and men in the deep wooden tub about the other visitors – us, and their curiosity was not long in coming. They wanted to chat. Because many of them were half-deaf, and perhaps half-blind – all were around ninety or hundred years of age, they needed to be close to me when chatting. They ordered each other to take turns so that everyone could enjoy. It was like a game moving from spot to spot in a limited space of one tub. And they all had the same questions: Where am I from and who is my husband and how did we find this remote place. They said that every day in the ryokan was the same, uninteresting, and now suddenly a nomadic theatre actor arrived and with them a blonde foreigner, who speaks Japanese and doesn’t mind at all that she is in the same bath together. They had a true feast! I love to remember this bath sharing very much. It is because at that very time my otherness was not a problem, but something what added to the joy of everyone, and at the same time I was one of them. I was included. We were all naked and it didn’t matter at all that we were old young in one tub. It didn’t matter who we were or whether we knew each other or not. We were naked people.
To accept hadaka tsukiai sincerely is a social precondition for an individual to feel part of the inhabitants of the Japanese islands. Hadaka tsukiai is a generally accepted term and is understood by every Japanese. Similarly, as may be understanding the importance of eating together. I don’t know why Japanese didn’t introduce also a term “shokuji tsukiai” (shokuji is food) in a similar way, because when eating, one encounters others very closely too. And this applies to every person in every culture and at all times. Therefore, we can imagine shokuji tsukiai well here in the Czech context. Now we experience the desire for shokuji tsukiai all the more because we have not been able to meet in restaurants for many months and even at home it was limited. How beautiful it is to feast together! The connection between being undressed in a shared bath and being together at a table with food is also expressed in the fact that in Japan, the price for bathing in sentó is governed by the price for soba noodles served in regular restaurants. It has always been subject to state and regional regulations in Japan. Every citizen should have reasonable access to food and bathing. In Tokyo, the sentó price is currently 470 yen per person.
We will not offer you a bath in Miyabi of course, but noodles yes, we will cook them for you. Buckwheat noodles as zaru soba (my favourite food after the ofuro bath) and wheat noodles as street food yakisoba. In recent years, it has become customary in Japanese sentó to add art exhibitions and musical performances to strengthen community bonds. This is also the case in Miyabi. We are now displaying a large samurai puppet and a beautiful painting of irises from a Japanese artist, and we are preparing an exhibition of ceramics and photographs. So, let’s refresh ourselves with beauty and experience joy, it is not a sin. It is good necessity.
For a full picture of what is onsen, sentó, furo, I recommend having look at the history of Japanese bathing. It has the roots in the Shinto purification ritual, both physical and mental. What buildings were built for the baths, what equipment they had and what was going on in them, what were the regulations and government orders and restrictions, all this illustrates human desires as well as sinful tendencies. One important thing, however, is that it is not good to hide fearfully human nudity. We just need to find how not to cover it up, so that nudity leads us to a full and fulfilled humanity.
Yours, Miyabi Darja
I enclose a link that will take you further into the world of sentó. The trip is worth it!